Surviving Being Dunked in the Cold Drink: the 1-10-1 Principle in Action

This is episode two in a three episode series covering cold water immersion. In episode one I cover just what cold water immersion is and is not. In episode two, I discuss surviving cold water immersion and what your body undergoes in the water. In episode three, I cover cold water immersion and hypothermia treatment on the water.

During our last chat together, we learned about the dangers of cold water immersion and the clobbering our bodies take. Now let’s talk about how to survive it. During every pre-race, pre-passage, pre-charter discussion, we review Rule #1: STAY ON THE BOAT! What happens when we don’t, through poor decisions, equipment failure or circumstances beyond our control? How can we increase our chances of surviving cold water immersion?

How Your Body Reacts in The Water

Reactively, after we’re in the water, the first trick is to survive the Cold Shock Response. Remember that initial agonizing moment of hitting frigid water we talked about last time? It’s that minute of panic, when people take on water and drown. The secret to surviving the Cold Shock Response is to stay calm, keep our head out of the water, and control our breathing. If you do have a choice, get in slowly to minimize the shock. The more skin cooled all at once, the worse the response. If you have time, do like scuba divers do. When we jump in, one hand holds our mask in place and the other the regulator. Use one hand to stabilize your PFD and the other to cover your nose and mouth. We have 1 minute to get our breathing under control.

The only way to survive phase two, Cold Incapacitation, that stage when the cold renders our arms and legs useless, is to wear a life vest. Without a PFD, we’ll be dead in 5-15 minutes because our arms and legs will no longer work well enough to keep our heads above the water. Even the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers among us won’t last longer than 30 minutes without one. Once our breathing is under control, we have about 10 minutes of purposeful movement to work with. While you still have the dexterity, this is the time to set off our Personal Locator Beacon, scream for help, use the portable VHF if we were lucky enough to have one with us when we fell overboard, and get our strobe light up where it can be seen.

To Self-Rescue or Not to Self-Rescue?

One of the most important questions when we’re in cold water with a capsized or swamped boat is: stay with the boat or swim to safety? We’ve all been taught to stay with the boat, which is almost always the best choice. There are some studies that support attempting to swim to shore, in certain circumstances. If rescue isn’t likely within an hour, what are the options? The big questions are: can you make it? And what if you’re wrong? Consider it only if wearing a PFD. Swimming increases blood flow to the extremities and muscles causing increased heat loss and faster exhaustion. While wearing a PFD, studies have shown that a novice swimmer can make it approximately 875 yards, about half a mile or eight-ish football fields. Expert swimmers may be able to make it 1600-ish yards or almost a mile. The average swim time for either is about 45 minutes. This data will be affected by wind, waves and any injuries. So, do you feel lucky? If you do, swim with a head up breaststroke at an even pace. DO NOT change your mind and stop. Don’t wait in place thinking you’ll get your strength back. You’re only going to get weaker and less coordinated.

H.E.L.P., Huddle and Star

If self rescue isn’t an option, we need to do something to live longer. If possible, get as much of your body out of the water as possible. Climb onto an overturned hull or other floating object while you have the strength and coordination to do so. Our bodies lose heat 25% faster in the water than in air of the same temperature.

Surviving Being Dunked In The Cold Drink: The 1-10-1 Principle In Action

The Heat Escape Lessening Position, for when conserving body heat is an absolute must. Image courtesy USCG.

If we’re alone, we need to get into the H.E.L.P. (Heat Escape Lessening Position) to insulate our torsos from the cold water. It works. Remember the Cold Water Boot Camp video! If we’re with others, we need to huddle together, arms interlocked, torsos pressed together. In both cases, remain still as movement will disturb the layer of water next to our skin that our bodies have warmed. In a group, if we hear a plane or helicopter we can get into the star formation by flipping on our backs, linking arms and kicking, to increase visibility and the chance of rescuers seeing us.

Surviving Being Dunked In The Cold Drink: The 1-10-1 Principle In Action

If you’re in a group, huddle together for warmth, to conserve energy, and to keep each other’s spirits afloat. Photo courtesy NSW Maritime flickr.









Surviving Being Dunked In The Cold Drink: The 1-10-1 Principle In Action

If you’re fortunate enough to be in a group, get into the star formation when you hear a plane or helicopter, to increase your visibility and chances of being rescued. Photo courtesy NOAA flickr.

Proactively we can ALWAYS WEAR A PFD, wear brightly colored clothing, carry a portable VHF clipped to our PFD on watch, and use thermal protection such as a Mustang survival suit if available. Those things are warm as toast! I was one happy little sailor on Lake Superior, when I put on the Mustang. It smelled like the underside of a llama saddle, and I was thrilled to have it.

Life vests keep our heads from going under water during that first grueling moment of the Cold Shock Response and keep us afloat during and after Cold Incapacitation. Why wouldn’t you wear one?? Research shows that the reasons boaters give for not wearing life jackets are: we believe we don’t need them if we’re close to shore; we can put them on in the water and my personal favorite, most said because they can swim. BUNKO! Boaters proved each of these wrong with the ultimate price. If we survive the first shocking minute of hitting the cold water, we only have about ten minutes of purposeful movement before our arms and legs won’t work well enough to keep our heads above water. Let’s not use that time trying to struggle into a life jacket.

Also proactively, when sailing on dangerous cold water, think about your alcohol consumption. I know, I know. I love rum as much as the next guy. I’m told that my home yacht club has the highest consumption of Mount Gay rum on the Great Lakes. But here’s the rub. Besides impairing judgement, shivering, sensation of the cold, and our ability to care for ourselves, alcohol is a vasodilator, meaning that it causes the blood vessels to open up and send more blood to the skin, arms and legs. Our body wants to keep the heat in our core, where our heart, lungs and brain live. Alcohol opens up the windows and lets the heat out of the house.

The 1-10-1 Principle

The simple way to remember all of this is the 1-10-1 Principle. If we fall into cold water, we have about 1 MINUTE to get our breathing under control, 10 MINUTES of meaningful movement and 1 HOUR before we lose consciousness from the cold. We only get that hour if we have a life jacket on. If not, we will drown before our body temperature drops by even one degree. Bonus round: if we have a PFD that will keep our airway out of the water, we may have an additional hour or more after unconsciousness before our heart stops from hypothermia, another hour for rescuers to find us. Watch a quick video on the 1-10-1 principle below.

Thank you for listening. Next time, in the last chat of this series, we’ll discuss the rescue and treatment of the cold water immersed boater.

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