Alaska's fresh - and saltwaters are almost uniformly cold. Even during July, mere minutes in the water can lead to tragic consequences. Capsized vessels and falls overboard are the leading causes of cold-water immersion, with capsizing most often caused by overloading, poorly secured or shifting loads, improper boat handling and anchoring, or loss of power or steerage. Falling overboard typically occurs when a person slips or loses balance while standing or moving around the boat - a real concern for anglers fighting or netting fish. It often takes just an instant, and surprise might be the biggest enemy of all.
Hypothermia is a term most Alaskans are familiar with. But when it comes to cold-water immersion, most die long before they become hypothermic. Here's why: When a person falls into cold water, the body's initial reaction may include a "gasp reflex," hyperventilation, airway spasm, panic and vertigo, all of which put a person at high risk of water inhalation and drowning. Additionally, after about 10 minutes or so, a person may begin to experience what is called the short-term immersion response, or "swim failure." Localized cooling of muscle and nerves in the arms and legs impairs strength and dexterity, affecting the ability to swim or perform other essential survival actions.
After an hour or more of immersion, depending on water temperature, body type, clothing and many other factors, persons will experience the onset of hypothermia, as the body's core temperature drops. And as this happens, a person will eventually lapse into unconsciousness.
For Alaska's boaters the top priority, regardless of age or ability, should be to always wear a personal flotation device (state law requires PFDs for children under the age of 13). Also, if not wearing a PFD, you will waste valuable energy and time treading water just trying to keep a clear airway. Secondly, always carry emergency communication devices (such as a personal locator beacon, hand-held VHF radio or a cell phone in a waterproof bag) and some signals (a whistle or pencil flares) on your person.
If you do experience an immersion event, and rescue is not imminent, the priority (assuming everyone is wearing life jackets) is to perform the most important functions first before strength and dexterity are lost. In this case account for everyone, activate emergency communication devices and get out of the water as soon as possible, either by re-boarding the boat using devices you previously installed, climbing onto the capsized boat or other floating object, or if it is within easy reach, by swimming to shore. The sooner you can get your body out of the water, the greater the chances of survival.
If rescue is imminent, look to conserve energy and body heat. The H.E.L.P. position (heat escape lessening posture) may slow heat loss. Bring your knees up as close to the chest as possible and wrap your arms around them in a tuck position. If other passengers are in the water as well, use the "huddle" technique to maintain body heat collectively, pulling the sides of everyone's chests close together, with arms around the back and legs intertwined. This has the added benefits of keeping everyone together, provides added visibility for rescuers and helps to maintain morale.
The best scenario for cold-water immersion is to reduce or prevent the risk in the first place. If boating in Alaska, it's as simple as making sure not to overload your boat, avoiding situations where you may fall overboard and of course, making sure that everyone is wearing a Coast Guard-approved PFD in advance of an emergency. Following are some more tips and guidelines:
Always take weather and water conditions into consideration. Be prepared to stay put until the weather improves.
Make sure you have the equipment required by law, as well as other items like paddles, first-aid kits, tools and spare parts. In Alaska, access to a satellite phone can be a lifesaver.
File a float plan with family and friends and stick to it. Notify the same people upon your return.
Take boating safety classes - the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Office of Boating Safety conducts the nationally-approved, and Alaska-relevant, Alaska Water Wise (AWW) boating safety course, which is free.
Take a first aid and CPR course
Teach passengers how to stop, start and steer the boat, and how to handle boating emergencies.
For more information on boating safety in Alaska, cold-water immersion prevention and response, and safety courses available to the public, please visit www.alaskaboatingsafety.org.