Cold-water shock survival

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

By Ray FordRay Ford

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Ray’s immersion

The plunge mimics what would happen if a cottager, doing that last job before pulling in the dock, or stowing the boats, tumbles into deep water. To stack the deck in my favour, I’ve got a vest-style PFD, long underwear, my doctor’s permission, and a team of paramedics on the dock—not to mention more members of the OPP, the Safe Boating Council, and the Lifesaving Society. I’ve also got a plan: I aim to fall gently backwards, with the sort of slow-motion Nestea plunge that will keep my face out of the water.

Everyone else on the dock seems far too cheerful, like the boisterous crowds that used to gather at public hangings. It’s time to get this over with.

Look away from the water, draw a breath, and…fall.

The blow drives the air from my lungs, contracting muscles and splaying fingers. Cold sweeps across my face, spilling between my lips. I’m suspended in twilight and the dock is invisible. So much for the gentle plunge, the dry face.

It’s hard to move, because the clinging water makes my limbs heavy and slow. My main concern is to get the water out of my mouth. I want to open up, and somehow spit it out without sucking any more in.

And then there’s the weird part. While all this is going on, the voice ruminates: Drowning, does it start like this? What happens next? (The rest of my brain—the part looking for a way out of the water—finds this deeply irritating.)

Then I rocket to the surface, the PFD tugging me back into the light. I’ve been under a long time, long enough to forget about the PFD, the divers, and the fact that this is really just an exercise.

What happens after falling in

Sudden immersion in cold water triggers an almost irresistible physical reaction, an extreme version of the shock you got as a kid when one of your friends dumped ice cubes down your back. Cold receptors in the nerves beneath your skin sense the shift from balmy to drastic chill, and send a storm of frantic signals: Something’s wrong. Prepare for action. Get air.

“Essentially, your body is stimulated to get ready for fight or flight,” says Dr. Freeze, Stephen Cheung. Your heart and muscles call for more oxygen, setting off an “inspiratory gasp,” a huge, lung-filling two- to three-litre gulp of air. If your face is already underwater as the signal is sent, that gasp is likely your last.

If you don’t drown immediately, there’s another complication: The body’s demand for air is so primal, so hard to override, that your ability to hold your breath in cold water is about half what it would be in a warm pool. If you can only hold your breath for, say, 15 seconds after you fall through the ice, it’s a lot tougher to keep the air in and the water out.

So it’s no surprise death can come quickly. Drowned kayakers have been found seated in their overturned craft, still gripping their paddles. Strong swimmers slip into the water and never resurface. During the 1990s, the Canadian Red Cross logged three cold-water deaths that each began as a trip to fetch water.

In my case, one moment I was falling toward the water, and the next I was beneath the surface with water in my mouth. My gasp happened so quickly, so reflexively, that I never felt it.

Back on the surface, spluttering and rolling water to one side of my mouth to keep from choking. The water has my ribs in a vise. I try to breathe, but can’t get air.

This article was originally published on December 14, 2009

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