Gasp Reflex - Personal Experience?

I’ve paddled New England Whitewater for some 15 years. I’ve rolled and swum plenty in spring snowmelt. I’ve been with plenty more who’ve done the same. I went to a drysuit early. Lots of others I paddle with wear wetsuits (brrr!). I’ve seen and experienced mild hypothermia.

But I’ve never seen or experienced anything remotely resembling a gasp reflex.

I know BNystrom has, in what I would guess were surprising circumstances.

Has anybody else either experienced this or had it happen to someone they were with?

Yes it happens

– Last Updated: Jan-23-13 12:31 PM EST –

Had it happen to myself, with hyperventilation and
muscle cramping making swimming/holding on difficult.
I now have a dry suit after that ugly experience.

Attend a Polar Plunge event - with dozens going thru
hole in the ice to see, hear, and observe others.
A gasp can be a scream/yell/shout or loud expletive.
Multiple people, multiple ways to express that """gasp"""
With 8 Billion people on the planet, results will vary.

Everyone is a unique individual

One of the first times I went paddling in the northern tier of Pennsylvania counties in early spring snowmelt.

I was in a kayak and had on a dry top, Polartech beanie under a helmet, and pogies with fleece and a couple layers of Capilene under the dry top. I had paddled a good bit in the southeast throughout the winter and early spring and had been in water in the 40-50 degree Fahrenheit range quite many times.

The first time I capsized in water at a temperature at or below 35 degrees I involuntarily gasped a bit and inhaled a small amount of frigid water. It was quite difficult to avoid coughing and inhaling more water but I managed to do so until I could set up and roll up. A rather disconcerting experience.

With additional experience I found that I could capsize and roll without that gasp tendency by starting to exhale as soon as I realized I was going over.

I hesitate to call it a reflex, but
I’m sure it exists and can be elicited in nearly everyone, including me.

Even the well-know patellar tendon reflex is affected by one’s mental state prior to strike of the hammer. One has to cut one’s brain off and let the spinal cord do its work unimpeded to get a valid result.

I think the broader term “cold water response” may turn out to be more useful and relevant.

Most experienced winter paddlers are sufficiently keyed up, emotionally, and tuned to the possibility of a roll or even a swim, to make the cold water response smaller and manageable. But I would keep an eye on any newbie on a winter trip. I’ve had to have a few walk back to the put-in after they got stunned by a swim and turned hypothermic.

Many of those who have experienced it
are not going to be around to report on it. As I recall it is the most common cause of drowning in cold water.

Whatever you want to call it…

– Last Updated: Jan-23-13 4:39 PM EST –

Whatever you want to call it; I have experienced it.

The absolute worst time was on a day when I was paddling tandem with a friend. I was in the stern.
It was a mid winter day; about 20 degrees, with a very nasty wind chill.
We had just rounded a 90 degree curve, and hit a patch of fast moving water, with lots of obstacles.

Friend was supposed to be wearing glasses, but he had taken them off as they kept fogging up on him. His vision was extremely poor without glasses.
I was looking back upstream; watching a pair of rookies who had just dumped on the curve, to assure they made it shore. Told bow man (several times)"Mike, keep sharp lookout in front of us for obstacles". When I saw rookies were ok, I started to turn back around, facing downstream.
Bow man did not see tree limb just below surface of water, attached to a sunken log.
Bow of canoe high centered on the tree limb.
We hit the water in a couple of heartbeats; I hit the water face first. Kept my mouth shut & quickly rolled over onto my back, reached out & grabbed the canoe, and got rid of my paddle. Hyperventilated a little(willed my body to think & act),finished up lengthy, censored expletives, and got my body under control. My buddy did likewise, and less than a minute later we were on opposite sides of the canoe, swimming the canoe towards shallower water, near shore. Got to the shallows; got on the same side of the canoe, emptied as much water out of the canoe as we could, and quickly waded it into shore.

My whole body felt like it was literally on fire.
Shivering started immediately, and got worse with passage of time

By the time we got on shore, my hair, eyelashes, moustache & beard were frozen. My dump bag was lashed to a thwart, but I could not get the frozen rope holding it untied. I cut the rope, and got change of clothes out. But this time, all of my clothes were frozen stiff. When I moved the ice made a crackling noise. I had a hell of a time getting my pfd and clothes off. Was shaking(uncontrolled shivers) so much, I could not undo buttons & buckles without difficulty, and the zipper on the pfd, and my pants were actually freezing shut. Boot laces were frozen; took a while to get them loose. Finally mananaged to get undressed; I think it may have taken the best part of 15 minutes. I immediately felt better as soon as I got a stocking cap, and layers of dry clothes on, but it took a fire, and a warm drink to warm us up enough to stop the shivers.

My winter dump bag got much larger after that experience(probably about 1983),and it has a larger variety of warm clothes, and more fire starting material.
And I still, always wear a knife.

Other winter time, out of boat experiences have occurred in similiar conditions, but the first was the worst. I learned a lot from the first one.

I'll take a cold swim over getting caught in a hydraulic any day of the year.


Yup, I have
But not paddling. It happened to me during my open water SCUBA certification. You have to remove your mask, put it back on, and clear it under water(duh).

The water temp was 55 degrees, and the class was being checked by the instructor one by one. My turn came, and I broke the seal and flooded my mask. It felt like I stuck my head in a bucket of ice water, and I gasped, sucking in a big noseful of cold water. Of course this made me choke\cough to get the water out of were it shouldn’t be. I put my hand on my regulator, like I was trained, so I didn’t spit it out and make things worse. Then the instructor put one hand over mine, and his other hand on the back of my head. He kept me in this head lock until my coughing fit ended, and I was breathing normal. As normal as one can under water, without a mask, and heart pounding. Then I finished the exercise. It was not fun.

I’ve done polar plunges

– Last Updated: Jan-23-13 7:16 PM EST –

I've done polar plunges with the ice cut out of an area for everyone to jump in. I think this reflexive inhalation of water is quite different than the gasps after resurfacing at a polar plunge. Quite the opposite in fact, as it happens to me. I would describe the feeling as successfully holding my breath upon jumping in, my rib cage contracting so tightly upon submersion, that when I resurface, it takes a few seconds to relax enough to allow myself to inhale. In other words, I gasp for air after a few seconds, because I've been wanting to inhale for a few seconds, but my ribs and everything have contracted in so tightly that it hasn't allowed it. When I'm finally able to inhale, it is very much intentional vs. involuntary, and is a gasp for air. This reaction would not make me worry at all about accidentally inhaling water. So I have not experienced this reflex.

none seen here
and I do much of my paddling in the winter. Perhaps the best chance I would’ve had was flipping my new to me Encore sans drysuit in 35 degree water, midriver. Pushed the boat to the bank which took maybe 2-3 minutes, and then actually stood in the water bailing the canoe out. Legs were prickly.

Generally I gasp before hitting the water when it’s bigger stuff, but once in, I feel at home lol.

Man downed this weekend here in SC
On the Saluda River a man fell out of his John boat without a PDF. People onshore saw him fall out and he didn’t come back up. I have a friend from Maine who says every year on the first good warm days people will dive in to swim and not come back up. So I agree with you that those who experience this don’t always live to discuss what happened.

I once had a wave totally blindside me. Knocked me right over. The air was warm and the water was cool. I was so freaked that I swam. I hung on to my boat and panted like I’d been sprinting for twenty minutes. I did a re-enter and roll and paddled to the take out with no more problems. At the take out I bent over to pick something up and what seemed like a quart of seawater gushed out of my sinuses. I got a real education that day.

In the Arctic circle in the Noatak river. I decided to test the waters. I knew if I walked in I would never do it, so I ran in and dove. I opened my eyes underwater, and ended up with an eyeball ache and a ice cream headache, but that was all.

Then in Glacier Bay on another occasion I ran in and dove in the 35 degree water. It was breath taking, but nothing like a gasp reflex.

Jack L

I have experienced it
As you become acclimated to cold water the ‘gasp reflex’ lessens.

If I know I am going to be paddling in cold water/weather conditions I turn off all the hot water when I am showering and slowly count to 100. After a week or so the cold water hardly has affect.

Well, I was with this assertive girl
from Philadelphia once…And after jumping in the backseat of my car, we…That is, she…And then she…And then I…GASP!!! (At least I’m pretty sure she was a girl–I was pretty young back then, and had had quite a few.) Nobody’s perfect;-

But no. Like you, having swam numerous times over the years in the icy cold waters of the boulderous northeast, I have never witnessed nor been a party to, ahem–the gasp reflex.

Now shrinkage and purple grape nuts. That’s another winter paddling story.

I agree
I suspect the “gasp reflex” is more or less part of a generalized adult startle response. Many people will gasp when suddenly startled and nearly everyone would if someone threw a bucket of ice cold water on them while they were sleeping.

While the response is involuntary, I think it can controlled with experience once one knows what to expect. But that’s not to say that it can’t get you the first time if you don’t know what is coming.

yep once
on the Snake River in the Yukon… Bronchospasm. I was getting washingmachined in class 4 glacier meltwater. I could get air in but not out… Thought I would explode.

It does not happen with every cold water immersion with me.

All I know is when thing go wrong, I end up puking cold water. I don’t even remember swallowing it.

I was pinned once on the North Fork of the American R under a raft tube with the river right below my nose. It was hard to remember to breathe. Hell yeah I think there is a gasp reflex.

Dr, Disco, you’re the only one who
recalls. The others are dead.

But seriously, how would they acquire the evidence to show that it is the most common cause of drowning? Just because of the proportion of victims with water in their lungs? That wouldn’t prove anything to me.

I don’t know for sure
But obviously it would depend on data about the drowning incidents themselves. Was the water temp less then 20 degrees C.? Did the victim go under within a minute or two of going into the water? There may also be physiological indications as well but I have not read that literature. If you want to know way more than reasonable about the definitional problems have a look at this AHA article:

Gasp Reflexx
It doesn’t happen all the time. In the process of shrink-wrapping boats that were in hoists and surronded by newly frozen ice, I have gone through the ice probably 6 times over a ten year period. Aside from the sudden icy wetness, the gasp was generally just a four letter spoken word and a sudden impulse to get out.

The one time the gsap reflex hit me was some years ago when I foolishly dove off a dock into very cold water. I swam underwater for about 40 feet, then surfaced adn attepted to take a breath.

My lungs refused to function.

I was not able to breath until I had reached shore.

It was only through luck that I survived.

The gasp reflex is just that - you gasp for air, but nothing happens.