West Trenton, N.J. – The first spell of warm weather after a long winter brings intrepid boaters back out onto the frigid waters. Those adventurous souls sometimes pay for their enthusiasm with their lives. Last year, there were two reported cold water boating deaths, and on Monday, tragedy struck when a New York man lost his life while fishing from a canoe.
The 56-year-old man was fishing alone in the Round Valley Reservoir in Hunterdon County when his boat overturned. The man was not wearing a life jacket and drowned. His body was located about 70 feet below the surface that same day by troopers using side-scan sonar. TEAMS Unit certified divers then went to the bottom to recover the victim.
“Unfortunately, events like this one are not unusual during this time of year,” said Colonel Rick Fuentes, Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police. “It’s imperative that boaters wear their life jackets rather than merely have them when boating on cold water.”
The off-season months are very dangerous for boaters because of the increased speed at which muscle fatigue sets in when mishaps occur. Nationally, four times as many boating accidents result in a fatality when the water temperature is 39 F or colder.
New Jersey lost two people in 10 cold water boat accidents (Nov. 1 to Apr. 30) as opposed to five deaths in 118 warm water boat accidents. Often, cold water death percentages are even higher than they were in 2012.
Falls overboard are the most common types of fatal boating accidents, and boaters hitting that frigid water often involuntarily gasp, taking water into their lungs. They also quickly find their strength sapped and their movements slowed down. The human body cools down 25 times faster in cold water than in cold air.
Within minutes of being in the water, people can lose manual dexterity, muscle coordination and breath control. Even strong swimmers can become drowning victims without the aid of a personal floatation device (PFD).
The best defense against drowning is to wear—not just have on board—a properly fitted, United States Coast Guard approved, personal floatation device while boating or taking part in activities on and around the water. This is especially true when boating in cold water.
Be aware of the “Involuntary Gasp Reflex”
When a person is suddenly immersed in cold water, they will experience an “Involuntary Gasp Reflex” during which the person will immediately exhale, this will be followed immediately by an uncontrollable “gasping” for air. As this occurs the person will generally panic, and, lacking a floatation aid, may begin to involuntarily “breath” water and drown in many cases, drowning occurs long before the effects of hypothermia are experienced.
Again, the best defense is to wear a PFD. While the PFD will not eliminate the gasp reflex, or the associated discomfort, the PFD will immediately float the person to the surface, thus allowing the person to be rescued. Some PFDs will even turn an unconscious wearer face-up, allowing badly injured or exhausted individuals to be rescued.
Boating Safety initiatives
New Jersey is an active member-State in the Northern Association of Boating Administrators (NABA). All of our neighboring states, including New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware are active participants. NABA is encouraging all northern states to enact legislation that would require mandatory PFD wear during the cold-weather months. Many believe that if these proposals were enacted, the number of boating fatalities would be reduced substantially.
Currently in New Jersey, individuals who are under 13 years of age, individuals who are waterskiing, and operators and passengers aboard personal watercraft are required to wear a PFD, regardless of the season.
Boating Safety Tips
Always wear a life jacket. Life jackets are an essential component to safe boating. There are many styles of life jackets available for a multitude of purposes including both extreme heat and cold.
Life Jackets Must Be:
- US Coast Guard approved
- In good and serviceable condition
- The appropriate size for the intended user.
- Wearable life jackets must be readily accessible.
- You must be able to put them on in a reasonable amount of time in an emergency (vessel sinking, on fire, etc.).
- They should not be stowed in plastic bags, in locked or closed compartments or have other gear stowed on top of them.
- The best life jacket is the one you will wear.
- Throwable devices must be immediately available for use.
- Place your mobile phone in a waterproof plastic bag and keep it on your person.
- Check the weather forecast
- Speak with locals to learn about local boating hazards
- Bring charts and maps of the area
- Check all safety equipment including VHF radios, GPS devices, emergency locator beacons and flares
- Pack a first aid kit robust enough for significant injuries that could occur while boating/hunting/fishing
- Pack food and water, even for a short trip
- Make sure your boat’s drain plug is in place
Dress to protect against hypothermia
Water temperature below 90 degrees is considered cold enough to cause hypothermia. Body heat is lost 25 times faster in water than in air of the same temperature. Dress in layers that will trap body heat even when wet. Wool and Polypropylene are good materials for such conditions. Avoid cotton fabrics.
Follow all boating regulations
This includes having a wearable, Coast Guard-approved PFD for each person on board. Vessels that are 16’ in length or greater must also carry at least one type IV (throwable) PFD. Check the capacity plate of the vessel and be certain not to overload or overpower the vessel.
If you should find yourself in the water
Relax and stay with the boat. If your vessel has capsized, try to climb out of the water and on top of your capsized boat to await rescue.
Do not worry about trying to salvage gear. Anything that falls overboard is worthless compared to the value of your life.
Additional Maritime Information
For more information about New Jersey boating laws and regulations, please visit the New Jersey State Police, Marine Services Bureau website at: www.njsp.org/maritime.