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Surviving in cold water

Toronto Police Marine Unit wants to make sure you're prepared.
Toronto Police Marine Unit wants to make sure you're prepared.

Jill Colton, staff writer

August 3, 2011 — We're full force into the dog days of summer, but be careful not to become sluggish about water safety.

Surviving in cold water -- yet another reason to wear a life jacket.
Surviving in cold water -- yet another reason to wear a life jacket.

When it comes to cooling off on a hot day, diving into the lake is the obvious choice. But water temperature can be deceiving and it's best to think twice before you swim.

Stacey Kellough, a marine unit officer with Toronto Police says many people don't realize how cold the lake can be -- even on a sizzling hot day.

“At the beach or in shallow waters it can be about 75 degrees. But as soon as you get on a boat and get further out, the water can drop about 10 to 12 degrees,” she warns.

Wearing a life jacket is essential. You're likely to survive the third stage of hypothermia if you're suited up.

That water might be cooler than you think!
That water might be cooler than you think!

“If you don't have a life jacket on, you won't be able to hold yourself above the water. If you are wearing one, you'll be able to last about an hour in the freezing temperatures.”

According to the Alaska Office of Boating Safety, unprepared boaters aren't likely to make it past the first stage of cold water immersion.

Kellough says if you fall into cold water, stage one includes panic. “As soon as you hit the water, you're going to panic because you're not used to the temperature.”

There's also a chance you'll take in a deep breath, inhaling a large amount of water in the process.

Kellough says if you can get through the first minute of the panic state, you'll usually have 10 minutes of body activity before hypothermia sets in. This means your muscles are in working order and you can try and swim to safety.

As hypothermia sets in, the body concentrates more energy on warming vital organs. The resulting loss of muscle control can quickly turn a strong swimmer into a weak, tired swimmer.

This is why it's essential to swim with a buddy at all times. And for those less-confident swimmers, a personal flotation device can be handy for added comfort.

Cold water immersion follows four distinct stages. They are:

  • Cold shock response-- Gasping in cold water, and accidently inhaling water.
  • Cold incapacitation -- The longer you're in the cold water, the less movement you'll have. It becomes more difficult to swim, therefore stay afloat.
  • Hypothermia -- This is where your life jacket becomes essential. You can survive for hours wearing one, minutes if you're not.
  • Circumrescue collapse -- The hypothermia process impairs the vascular system and its ability to move blood. The body tries to rewarm itself and causes a huge load on the heart. Even those rescued can be at risk.

With files from Alexandra Pope and Alaska Office of Boating Safety

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