Combating hypothermia and keeping warm on the water in cold weather

It takes a certain type of bravery to get out on the water in cold conditions and face the cold water, wind, rain and even snow! This guide looks at safety precautions to stay safe when out on the water, in winter.

Most dinghy racers, rowers, canoeists, kayakers etc. keep warm via the effort it takes to propel their respective crafts. However, before and after training/racing there could be time where the cold can strike and cause medical problems of varying degrees. In this guide we give a few tips on how to keep warm and what to do if you or someone else starts to show symptoms of hypothermia.

Staying warm prior to going out on the water

  • Starting with the obvious stuff – stay inside and warm for as long as possible. Many craft require some fine tuning before going out on the water. In my experience it’s best to get this done as early as possible so that you can go back inside and warm up again before the race itself. That way you’re ready to put hands on the boat and get out on the water with minimum faff and minimum “standing in the cold” time.

  • Layers, layers, layers – Again, this is somewhat obvious but in some instances a big bulky jacket isn’t possible so lots of thinner layers are a better option. Ideally your outermost layer should be a waterproof one. Two further things to consider here though:

    • Have you left enough dry kit to put on when you come in?

    • Are your layers easy to take off if you get too hot?

  • Make sure you’ve had enough to eat and drink – Believe it or not, you burn energy faster when you’re cold than when you’re at normal body temperature. Once you get going and warm up this effect is negated however there is science to suggest that your body has to work harder to keep warm and that when shivering, your body burns energy.

Symptoms and treatment of hypothermia

Staying warm when you get off the water is sometimes where people get caught out and where there’s a danger of hypothermia setting in. Hypothermia sets in when a persons’ core body temperature falls below 35°C and is considered severe when core body temperature falls below 30°C. You can become hypothermic without being wet but wearing wet clothes certainly exacerbates its onset.

Symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • Pale, cold, dry skin

  • Uncontrollable violent shivering

  • Irrational/out of character behaviour including belligerence or apathy

  • Disorientation, impaired consciousness or lethargy

  • Slow and shallow breathing

  • Weakening heartbeat (in extreme cases the heart may even stop)

Fortunately, there are a few simple methods of treating hypothermia. It’s important to remember however that you shouldn’t try to warm up a casualty too quickly. Methods of treating someone with hypothermia;

  • If outside, get the casualty indoors and sheltered.

  • Get the person out of contact with cold surfaces by sitting them on blankets or jackets. Even if there are chairs available try to have casualties sat on something soft and warming rather than cold and hard as some chairs may be.

  • Wrap blankets around the casualty. It’s important to remember to make sure the casualty’s head is also covered to keep the maximum amount of heat in.

  • Give the casualty a warm drink or some high energy food such as chocolate or jelly sweets

The winter can be a great time to get out there and get some good training in ahead of the summer season. Just make sure you’re prepared for the cold and know what to do if you feel the onset of hypothermia. For more information on hypothermia and other first aid topics, visit the St John’s Ambulance website.

Want to find out more about our Rowing Scull Insurance?

More details