Cold Water Survival: Are You Prepared?

Cold water survival: If you don’t wear a lifejacket, you could be in for a shock.

When you head out on the water for a day of pleasure, the last thing you expect is tragedy. But did you know that 90 per cent of boating death victims were not wearing lifejackets? All sports fishermen, hunters and boaters need to be aware that falling overboard into water that is less than 15 degrees Celsius can cause cold water shock — and kill you. And in Canada, the waters we boat in during hunting and fishing season can be this cold for most of the year. That’s why cold water survival is so important, year-round.

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Cold water is especially dangerous if you fall in unexpectedly — even if you are a strong swimmer. When you fall in the water, it is nearly impossible to put on a lifejacket in time to survive the initial cold shock and rescue yourself.

This is why wearing a lifejacket is vital to survival during an accidental fall into cold water. So, when you boat on cold water, remember the 1 – 10 – 1 principle.

You have:

  • 1 minute to get your breathing under control;
  • 10 minutes to use your arms and legs to stay afloat; and
  • 1 hour before hypothermia may cause you to become unconscious.

Don’t panic!

During the first minute, expect to gasp uncontrollably, be confused and  not able to use your hands, arms or legs. Once you get your breathing under control, you will then have 10 minutes before the effect of cold water prevents you from using your hands, arms or legs — and your wet clothing drags you to the bottom.  If you are not wearing a lifejacket during these first 10 minutes, your chance of survival is slim to none.

Survival Tips: Hypothermia may not set in for about one hour, so you need to conserve body heat while waiting for help. The body loses heat 25 times faster in water than in air, so get out of the water as much as you can, such as climbing on top of the overturned boat. If you cannot get out of the water, bring your knees to your chest and adopt the H.E.L.P. (Heat Escape Lessening Posture) position.

There are many different kinds of approved flotation devices. Styles range from floater suits to sleek inflatable lifejackets; and colours vary from bright yellow to camouflage. The best type of lifejacket is one that you will wear, so choose one that’s comfortable and practical for your boating activity.

Be prepared!

Taking a safe boating course is a good way to prepare for enjoying Canadian waters. Then, follow these tips each time you go out on the water.

Before leaving shore:

  • Put lifejackets or personal flotation devices that fit, for each person on board.
  • Check that all safety equipment on board is in good working condition.
  • File a sail plan to let someone know where you are going and when you will return
  • Be careful not to overload the boat.
  • Distribute the weight of passengers, gear and game evenly.

While boating:

  • Wear a lifejacket
  • Ask everyone on board to wear a lifejacket that fits.
  • Keep a low centre of gravity.

To learn more about boating safety and how to survive in cold water, visit or

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