Sailing is a great way to escape from the everyday pressures of life, it can be a great form of exercise whilst also being extremely soothing due to these benefits sailing is very often a favourite year round watersport for those who enjoy spending time on the waves. Although sailing is great at any time of the year, in the winter and other times when the water temperature is lower there is the increased risk of hypothermia and cold water shock. Although wearing the correct sailing equipment can help to reduce the risks, these can be extremely dangerous circumstances so it is good to know what to do should the situation arise.

What is cold water shock?

Cold water shock is the body’s initial reaction to being submerged in cold water. Falling into cold water causes an involuntary gasp reflex, if your head is under water when this reflex happens you will inhale a lot of water which is likely to lead to drowning. Cold water shock can also cause other reactions such as panic, hyperventilation and an increased heart rate. Cold water shock can last between 3-5 minutes before progressing onto more serious problems.

What sailing equipment can help to keep you warm? 

Although the sailing equipment and attire that you are wearing cannot completely prevent you from cold water shock, they can help to offer some added protection. For the coldest of weather conditions it is advisable to wear a number of layers such as thermal underlayers with a waterproof outer layer. Don’t forget the accessories! Keeping your head, hands and feet warm are also vitally important when protecting your core body temperature from dropping too low so a hat, thermal socks and sailing gloves are a must have.

What to do if someone has been submerged in cold water?

Firstly, you should call for immediate medical assistance. Whilst you wait for assistance to arrive you can help by:

  • Moving the affected individual to a warmed environment
  • Monitor their breathing and heart rate being prepared to perform CPR if required, but be aware of how a pacemaker vs defibrillator interact, so ensure the patient doesn’t use a pacemaker before initiating defibrillation
  • Gently remove any cold and wet clothing and replace with dry clothes or blankets
  • Keep the movement of the victim to an absolute minimum as a sudden increase in movement can cause a heart attack or stroke
  • If they are conscious and coherent, give them a warm drink, tea with honey is a good option as the body can still absorb sugars even if organs have begun to shut down. Ensure the drink is not hot but rather lukewarm.
  • Do not apply heat to the arms and legs or massage the victim as this can cause cold blood to travel back to the brain, heart and lungs which can be fatal.

Before heading out sailing in cold weather conditions you should ensure that you have properly researched the signs and symptoms of cold water shock and what to do should you encounter this problem.

Zoe Kickhefer