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Rules for cold water safety

This is old news to most of you but this site has some good info


NOTE: Each rule is followed by a number of Case Histories - Real-life examples of close calls and fatalities.
1) Always Wear Your PFD
2) Always Dress For The Water Temperature
3) Field-Test Your Gear
4) Swim-Test Your Gear Every Time You Go Out
5) Imagine The Worst That Could Happen and Plan For It


  • Options
    PDF vs lifejacket
    -- Last Updated: Feb-10-13 7:20 PM EST --

    One thing to be remembered, cold water or not, is that kayaking PFD is NOT a lifejacket - and should never be treated as such for planning purposes.

  • Options
    #5 should be #1
    -- Last Updated: Feb-10-13 8:26 PM EST --

    Reverse the order to start with

  • So, what is a lifejacket? A bulky thing
    that, in spite of its pretensions, won't keep your head up out of the water while you die of hypothermia?

    The Brits are all hung up over the life jacket distinction.

    I insist on calling ALL PFDs "life jackets" because that is the one justification for our being required to carry them, and in some circumstances, required to use them.

    Why do we wear PFDs? because they may save our lives. They're life jackets. Many canoeing and kayaking how-to and safety books STILL call them life jackets.

    Worse than PFDs, in the UK they have "buoyancy aids."
  • Options
    Still drown with a PFD on
    Sad thing is, you can still drown with a PFD on.
  • I call them PDFs by accident
  • Best that imagining
    is based on IN water experience. A person can imagine all kinds of scenarios with all kinds of plans but if they haven't been in the water and discovered their reactions to cold water and limits of their equipment for the time of rescues the plans are simply fantasies.
  • Options
    Lifejackets and so on
    Lifejackets are designed to keep your head above water, even if you are unconscious (at least they "should" do it) - they are put together in that way and are rated to at least 100N flotation, often more. They are not designed for active swimming either, at least not the kind of contortions kayakers go though in the water :). Kayaking PFD aka Buoyancy Aid is usually 50-60N rated and is specifically designed for someone who is active in the water - it will not keep you head up and you can perfectly well drown wearing one, as been said here.
  • Yes, even wearing a class 1 with neck
    support and ~30 pounds of flotation.
  • Who says so?? For decades, everyone
    has been calling all PFDs "life jackets". Then, recently, UK government agencies, and *parts* of the USCG, decided that they wanted to call only class 1 "life jackets."

    Here's a truth for you. If you are a competent kayaker running class 3-5 whitewater, you are more likely to flip and swim wearing your class 1 "life jacket", and more likely to fail to reach shore with equipment in hand, than if you are wearing a carefully selected class 3 life jacket, one designed to keep whitewater paddlers alive, NOT CRUISE SHIP PASSENGERS.

    And if you want the maximum number of sailboaters, powerboaters, tubers, kayakers, canoeists, etc., wear PFDs, call them life jackets. If you call them "personal flotation devices" or "buoyancy aids", people will miss the point. They will not understand that these devices are ALL to save lives, not just to "float" you.

    Describe two instances where the head and neck support of a class 1 has saved someone's life. Be specific.
  • There are some possible problems with
    your list. What does it mean to dress for the water temperature? What immersion time do you have in mind? Is the person having to struggle to get to shore, gather equipment, re-enter on the water, etc., or is he just huddling passively, as USCG suggests, waiting for rescue?

    I am often out paddling in conditions where if I dress to maximize survival in cold water, I will overheat in the boat. What's a good compromise? My real-life experience suggests that a dry suit and *some* insulation will allow me to effect self-rescue without quite reaching class 1 hypothermia. If I wear more insulation, I can't tolerate heating and am impeded in my paddling and reactions.

    Similarly for being prepared for the worst-case scenario. How likely is it? I can imagine lots of possible scenarios where I would need one of those survival suits like the Bering Strait fishing crews use when their boat sinks. How do I decide which worst case to prepare for, and what I should do to prevent a bad result?

    One of the values of a forum like this one is to come to some agreement about the range of bad outcomes that are actually occurring, and how to deal with them. Us whitewater paddlers gauge things by what we have seen happen, or have heard reported, over a number of years. We don't prepare for two vicious rednecks with shotguns who appear in the woods, do we?
  • Options
    only a check list
    I suspect the idea is to highlight what you should be actually _thinking_ about. Your final choices can't be dictated by anyone else because not only do they vary with conditions but with your personal willingness to take a risk. After all staying home is an even better way to avoid hypothermia but that's just for the very risk adverse. As long as you give serious thought and maybe discussion to each point you are ahead of many that don't.
  • Options
    so you just repeat
    what I said - that what you call "class 1" likefackets are not designed for active swimming - and expect this to make a point? The ONLY kind of personal flotation I've seen powerboaters, sailboat people and anyone but kayakers and jetski people - who need mobility in the water - wear would be what you call "class 1" lifejackets with head and neck support. Why? probably because they are not stupid enough to forgo extra flotation in cold water. Not to mention that fair share of powerboat/sailing lifejackets are automatic inflatables. There is more to cold water than swimming in a Class II/III creek. There are also seas and oceans with cold water in them.

    I've sailed Laser dinghies for a few years, nothing pro or serious, on the Baltic Sea. During one of the armature racers family cruiser's boom slammed into the guy's head and toppled him overboard. He was wearing the kind of lifejacket you deride so eagerly. General confusion on board resulted in him being fished out 10-15 minutes later, since other cruisers missed him going over and the crew was not very comfortable or skilled with man overboard situation. Early October, water some 12 C, nice windy day for dinghy racing. Dude was unconscious even before he hit the water with cracked skull. He did live, with some numerological damage - since it took them better part of an hour to get him back on dry land. But I guarantee, not wearing that lifejacket keeping his head above water he's be dead as a brick by the time they pulled him up. I've also heard of another racer drowning after being knocked out by a boom - being a dinghy racer he obviously was not wearing a head/neck support lifejacket.

    My point? Horses for courses. You won't impress anyone in the rapids with Class 1 lifejacket with 150N flotation. Knocked overboard unconscious and picked up 20 minutes later you stand a much better chance of being alive wearing Class 1 150N lifejacket with head and neck support rather than 50N kayaking PFD. If you want to argue against that, go ahead.
  • My point. They are all life jackets.
    All of them. We aren't going to reserve the term for type 1 jackets that very few wear. Of all the situations where it is in one's best interest to wear a life jacket, few of them require 30 pounds of flotation and head support.

    And I state again, it has not been shown that head support actually saves lives. In rough water, that head support is not going to keep a dopey swimmer's mouth out of the water, and rough water is precisely where one needs a class 1 to do the job.
  • Options
    #1 Paddling alone
    If you must paddle alone, be extra, extra conservative and safe.
  • Options
    and on we go...
    -- Last Updated: Feb-12-13 7:35 AM EST --

    Discussion here is about COLD water. The kind where in 10 minutes a normal bloke has trouble thinking clearly and moving his arms and legs. If the discussion were about some falling overboard their pleasure cruiser in the Caribbean in balmy weather, then of course, horses for courses...

    Yes, you are a whitewater kayaker and there is no water but "rough water". Now if only you were to listen and understand a simple thing - a head and neck support lifejacket is not designed for fast-flowing whitewater just as a touring kayak is not designed to run Class III rivers or jetski is not designed for ocean crossings. In open cold water - with the resulting incapacitation from hypothermia, and/or stormy condition - that is swell - a series of long-wavelength waves generated by wind in the surface of the sea - a head and neck support lifejacket will greatly increase your survivability. Yes, you might freeze to death in 60 minutes or so not dressed for impression in cold water wearing Class 1 lifejacket. But you will drown in less than 15 wearing your whitewater PFD and trying to swim - because as soon as you stop making coherent movements you will seize to be able to hold your head above water. Which is why a guy wearing a whitewater PFD will not be allowed on board a sailboat (or any other boat) by a serious skipper. But on the other hand, it is obvious that all those thousands of sailors, trawler fishermen, coast guard personnel and so on are inherently stupid because they stubbornly trust their lives to a piece of equipment that according to you has no merit whatsoever. I know personally 2 people from M/S Estonia - Google it if you don't know what it is - who swear by Class 1 lifejackets saving their lives in ice-cold water after being pulled out nearly unconscious. That evidence enough for me - when taken into account of what happened there and how many drowned.

    If you were to live by a body of water that gets REALLY cold in winter, you'd understand the difference between having your head above water and having to "swim" to keep it up.

  • Amen
    That should be the number 1 rule.

    Jack L
  • I belong
    to a WW kayaking club in the midwest, & have seen this type of thread before on our discussion forum. Seems to be 2 patterns of thought, especially on paddling alone in cold water temps. I have heard some say "never paddle alone" & some that say paddling alone is fine cause your not risking anyone but yourself. Personally, I have paddled alone but not in cold water temps. I think about what will happen if I have to swim, or end up with a foot pinned if I am alone in cold water. Where I paddle, I usually don't see another soul, so waiting for a rescue is not an option. It's either self rescue, or situational badness. I agree you can't "plan for the worst" because you don't know what the "worst" could be. Deliverance comes to mind. How about a bear attack?
    That being said, I just plan on swimming for any run & having to hike it out, & bring whatever gear I think I might need.
  • Did you go to the website?
    If you clicked on each "rule" it links to a page with more detail. The general rule is that you should know how your gear works in the water for your time of immersion or rescue. The website doesn't specify what that is for you, that is your judgement.
  • Options
    Hiking out
    -- Last Updated: Feb-12-13 1:10 PM EST --

    I've paddled in the winter on rivers
    in SouthEast Michigan and got burned.

    Nothing sucks more than an unexpected
    ice jam/dam in a tight corner of the river
    preventing forward progress while snowmelt
    current pushes you very very hard towards it.

    Combined with high slippery banks making take-out
    quite difficult, it was a long walk/portage
    thru snow and forest back to car.
    Paddle plans on a few miles an hour with current.
    Walk with kayak on shoulder, slow and tedious.
    Limited daylight, sun drops fast.

    Brainstorming, talking to others, recon, scouting etc., etc.
    are all important parts of paddling.
    Sometimes learned via hard knocks method :-(

  • Washington Kayak Club WInter Safety
    Washington Kayak Club is a meetup group near Washington, D.C. This is our guidelines for trip leaders on winter paddles:

    Washington Kayak Club Cold-Water Rules

    Organizers should adhere to the following:
    • Limit group sizes (10 seems like a reasonable limit).
    • Include the following “Before you RSVP” list in each Meetup invitation.
    • Conduct the “Pre-Launch Check” before you get in the water.
    • Use the Buddy system in addition to designated Sweepers and Rescuers.
    • Have a clear plan…destination, distance, weather conditions.
    • Choose calm waters and try to stay close to shore. Think about how long it would take to reach dry land.
    • If the group splits up, try to keep at least 3 people (2 at an absolute minimum) in each group.


    Participants: Before you RSVP:

    If you have never kayaked or have only limited experience, or if you do not own cold weather gear, for your own safety you should not attend this Meetup. If you are a beginner and anxious to get out and paddle, stay tuned, there will be beginner-friendly paddles when the water is warmer!

    In addition to Paddle Float, Bilge Pump, Whistle, and PFD, the following is required:

    • Dry suit with insulating layers worn underneath it. *NO COTTON*, not even blends; only synthetic fibers like fleece, polyester, etc. that insulate even when wet.
    • Or, if you wear a wet suit: NO shorties. A cold-weather wetsuit suitable for 30°-40°F water. Farmer Johns/Janes ONLY if paired with a wetsuit jacket, or with a dry top with thick thermal layers.
    • Cold-weather neoprene gloves/mittens. Also consider “Pogies” that go on your paddle and cover your hands.
    • Cold-weather neoprene/fleece hat, beanie, balaclava, etc. to keep your head warm if you are immersed. Again, NO COTTON. Baseball caps and cowboy hats are useless in the water.
    • Neoprene booties and thermal socks.
    • Bring a dry bag with an extra set of thermals, gloves, socks, and hat.
    • Always bring a snack. If you end up in the water you may need to generate more body heat. And, you may need the calories for the return trip.
    • Water. It’s not just for hot weather. You still need hydration.
    • Consider bringing a thermos of hot beverage. Bring extra water if you bring coffee or black tea, because they will dehydrate you.
    • Consider your skill and experience. If in doubt, ask first. The Organizer will tell you whether it’s a good paddle for you.
    • Consider the weather, especially in relation to your skill and experience. Even if it looks nice, ALWAYS bring all of your cold-weather gear!
    • Listen to the NOAA and/or Coast Guard advisories.
    • Kayak skirt. Mandatory.
    • Paddle float—blocks are quicker than inflatables.
    • Group gear (recommend each individual carry these, but if not, someone in the group should):
    • Radio (VHF with channel 16 minimum, for Coast Guard): at least one radio per group? For larger groups the more the better, especially if the group breaks into separate “pods”.
    • Tow line (one per person? One per pair?)
    • Strobe light
    • Smoke flare
    • First-aid kit


    Pre-Launch Check To Be Conducted by Organizer

    • Does everyone have the gear mentioned above?
    • Is it in good working order?
    • Battery-check your radio.
    • Do you have spare batteries for radio?
    • Who else has a (radio, tow line, etc.)
    • SAFETY CHECK: is everyone in the habit of ensuring the pull tab is outside the skirt?

    • Ask each paddler:
    • Can you roll (and not just in a pool with assistance)?
    • Can you do self-rescues?
    • Can you assist others with a rescue?
    • How do you feel about today’s weather and water conditions?
    • Are you willing to obey the leader in order to ensure group safety?

    • Make sure each paddler has a buddy
    • Slow group sweep: [assign name]
    • Fast group sweep: [assign name]

  • thank you so much
    I was going to post that in haste and a bit less patience.

    People here jump all over this without reading it. go to the link, read the damn thing, and THEN if you have differences then by all means air them.

  • yeah. so?
    -- Last Updated: Feb-13-13 1:01 PM EST --

    Did the article represent PFDs as life preservers, or do you paddle in one?

    How many sea kayakers of your skill level or better paddle with a "life preserver"?

    If you find yourself in the water unconscious in cold temps, chances are that the conditions that put you there in the first place aren't going to harmonize well with your notion of keeping one's head "above" water.

  • nice info, thanks
    Some interesting reading while i'm living vicariously thru the rest of you out paddling.
  • Options
    Group dynamics
    Personal responsibility - instead of - completely
    relying on others for everything in case of crisis.
  • Options
    A Bit Confusing
    -- Last Updated: Feb-16-13 9:21 PM EST --

    Hi mates-

    We have a "What PFD's Can and Can't Do" page on our web site

    Some other info:
    In Essentials of Sea Survival, Golden & Tipton note that "To qualify for "life-jacket" classification in the UK, adult life-jackets must have in excess of 34lbs of buoyancy." Lesser devices are termed "Buoyancy Aids". On our side of the pond, the Coast Guard doesn't list a single device with buoyancy in excess of 34lbs. The closest ones are Type 1 Inflatable (33lbs), Type II Inflatable (33lbs, and a Type V - Special Use Device - Inflatable (22lbs to 34lbs).

    The Coast Guard's information on "RECREATIONAL BOATING PFD SELECTION" is here: http://www.uscg.mil/hq/cg5/cg5214/pfdselection.asp,
    and the terminology, while it sheds no light on our life jacket vs PFD discussion, is pretty interesting. In the interest of space, I'll stick to Types I, II & III. Incidentally, no mention is made of supporting the wearer in a face-up position. 

    TYPE I PFDS / OFF-SHORE LIFE JACKETS:  Best for all waters, open ocean, rough seas, or remote water, where rescue may be slow coming.  Abandon-ship lifejacket for commercial vessels and all vessels carrying passengers for hire:

    TYPE II PFDS / NEAR-SHORE BUOYANT VESTS:  For general boating activities.  Good for calm, inland waters, or where there is a good chance for fast rescue.

    TYPE III PFDS / FLOTATION AIDS:  For general boating or the specialized activity that is marked on the device such as water skiing, hunting, fishing, canoeing, kayaking and others.  Good for calm, inland waters, or where there is a good chance for fast rescue.  Designed so that wearing it will complement your boating activities.

    So we have Lifejackets, Life Jackets, Off-Shore Life Jackets, Near-Shore Buoyant Vests, and Floatation Aids, which leaves plenty of room for confusion. The Coast Guard seems to be aware of this, because they have the following disclaimer at the bottom of their page:

    "The Coast Guard is working with the PFD community to revise the classification and labeling of PFDs.  When completed, this information will be updated and hopefully be somewhat easier to understand." 

    One thing I find particularly interesting is the recommended use for Type IIIs: "Good for calm, inland waters, or where there is a good chance for fast rescue." 

    There is currently a push to drop "PFD" in favor of "Life Jacket". I've been using PFD since the 1970's and don't know if my brain can handle that transition.

    Hope this is helpful, mates.

  • Tested my gear a couple of weekends ago

    I'm in there somewhere.... Water temp's around here are in the mid 30's this time of year, but I never felt cold. The problem I did have was that my foot got caught under the seat of the canoe. It took me a couple of seconds to work my foot free. Not a big deal since I was in the quiet water below the drop, but it's a reminder that cold water is just one of many things that can go wrong while paddling.
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