Written by Gene Cahill.
It is a balmy March morning when you set off in your kayak for a few hours paddling along the coast. Air temperature is 12°Celsius (53° Fahrenheit) and water temperature is 9°C (48°F). The sea is relatively calm with little or no wind. With such good weather, you’re dressed relatively light. No need for dry gear or wetsuit and besides, you have no intention of getting wet. You’re paddling buddy, paddling 50 yards in front of you is similarly dressed. You’ve paddled this stretch of coast before, and you’re both competent paddlers. You suddenly observe your friend capsize but you think nothing of it – his/her roll technique is perfect and you wait for his/her reappearance. Only you first notice that there is no visible sign of the paddle above the water, prior to a roll. You wait some more, but still no sign. By this time you are paddling hard towards your friend, knowing that you need to perform a rescue. You pull up alongside and with correct technique you upturn the kayak to its proper position. Your friend is still sitting in it. Not moving. Drowned. But how?
When human skin first comes into contact with cold water, the body undergoes a number of immediate physiological changes. For a capsized kayaker, it is the first one of these responses that can often be fatal. The sudden lowering of skin temperature results in an immediate loss of breathing control by triggering a number of large involuntary ‘gasps’ for air. If your head is submerged, water will be breathed in and you will drown immediately. There have been numerous cases of dead kayakers being found capsized, still in their boats, never having attempted to self-rescue or exit. The cause of death – cold water shock, but more importantly for the kayakers – the involuntary gasp caused by cold water shock.
How then can a kayaker prepare for such an event? Dressing for immersion should be a prerequisite for any kayaker paddling in cold waters. Paddlers should dress according to the temperature of the water and not the temperature of the air. Without exception. And while it’s all very well having the best and most advanced drysuit on the market, you may still experience cold water shock if your hands or head are exposed to the cold water, therefore don’t forget gloves and a warm fleece/neoprene hood. It is important to never paddle alone or too far from a paddle buddy when out kayaking. A close-by paddle buddy can affect a rescue to a drowned kayaker and the sooner the rescue is performed, the better chance the drowned kayaker has of being resuscitated. Kayakers should also be well rehearsed in rescue techniques – if you capsize, gasp and effectively drown, your survival is dependent on your paddle buddy to be able to affect a rescue. If a group’s members cannot individually rescue – there is a very great potential for fatalities. Finally, awareness of the risk of cold water shock (and specifically the ‘gasp’ where kayakers are concerned) should be enough to encourage kayakers to take necessary precautions. Before setting out on any kayaking journey – think of the worst thing that could happen while you’re paddling…and prepare for it.
There are many other symptoms of cold water shock, but these are outside the remit of this article. Much of the study on this topic has been done by Moulton Avery, founder and director of the National Centre for Cold Water Safety. More information on this can be found at www.coldwatersafety.org or on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/coldwatersafety.