Cold-water shock survival

A sudden immersion in cool waters can kill you. Ray Ford finds out why, first-hand

By Ray FordRay Ford


Photo by Randy Craig

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The lake’s November chill arches my back, pries my mouth open, forces my eyes wide until, overhead, I see the pewter sky through a cloud of bubbles. A second ago, I was up there, on the dock. Now I’m below the surface, flailing in liquid that feels as thick as gelatin, surprised by the water filling my mouth. A small voice, distant and oddly detached, muses: Am I going to drown?

The answer comes a second later, when my PFD delivers me, spluttering and gasping, back to the surface. Thank God, I think, still troubled by the underwater voice. Now I’ve got to last another 10 minutes, in a lake that’s nearly ice-water cold…

What is cold water shock?

A sledgehammer blow that can cause drowning, trigger heart failure, or chill victims so rapidly they’re unable to swim, hang on to a rope, or pull themselves to safety.

Cold water has been claiming lives as long as we’ve ventured near it, but it’s only during the past few decades that scientists have solved an ancient mystery: Why does cold water kill so quickly? How do strong swimmers succumb in seconds or minutes—long before hypothermia can set in?

The answer is the “huge, huge shock to the system” that comes with sudden, unexpected immersion in cold water, says Stephen Cheung, holder of the Canada Research Chair for Environmental Ergonomics. Known around St. Catharines’ Brock University as Dr. Freeze, Cheung is his own lab rat, dunking himself in chilled water while wearing nothing more than swim trunks. “People worry about falling in cold water and dying from hypothermia, but with cold shock, you’re not in the water long enough for that,” he says. “You die from drowning.”

So that’s why I’m a sodden and chilled guinea pig in Lake Muskoka. To help Cottage Life’s readers understand the threat that lurks off their docks and beneath their boats, my editor (in his warm, dry office) says, “We want show, not tell.”

The facts:

  • An average of 200 people in Canada die from cold-water immersion every year. Many of them while boating from April to May and September to November, according to a decade-long survey of drownings released by the Canadian Red Cross in 2006.
  • If you do go for a sudden, unexpected dunking, don’t count on your swimming skills—or a nearby dock or boat—to save you. When the Lifesaving Society looked at all the drownings in Canada during 2005, at least 36 per cent of the victims (and possibly another 17 per cent more whose swimming abilities weren’t identified) were thought to be average or strong swimmers. More sobering, at least 56 per cent of the deaths took place within two metres of safety. In other words, if a boat, dock, or rescue line was just out of arm’s reach (or sometimes even within it), the victims couldn’t help themselves.

Cold Water Boot Camp

“When you’re playing around cold water, you need to be prepared,” says Ted Rankine, a former chair of the Canadian Safe Boating Council. “If you have an accidental immersion, you need to keep your airway open. And to give yourself a chance to survive that initial shock, you need to be wearing a lifejacket.”

To prove those points, Rankine organized Cold Water Boot Camp. Held in April 2008, the camp pitted nine volunteers—including veteran sailors, a Coast Guard rescue specialist, a Canadian Armed Forces search-and-rescue technician, and a police officer with Winnipeg’s River Patrol—against the rigours of Lake Simcoe. “They’re the kind of people the public looks at and says, ‘If these guys had problems, so could I.’

He goes on: “You hear people say, ‘I can swim, I don’t need a lifejacket.’ Well, at Boot Camp we said, ‘Uh-huh? Swim this.’  ”

Rather than the boot camp’s group effort, this is a solo immersion: it’s just me—watched by the wetsuited divers of the Ontario Provincial Police Underwater Search and Recovery Team, just in case something goes wrong—versus Lake Muskoka’s 4.5°C water.

This article was originally published on December 14, 2009

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