SML Water Safety Council

Winter has arrived at the lake, but that doesn’t stop some people from enjoying time on or around the water. Cooler air temperatures, however, mean cooler water temperatures that can be deadly for anyone taking an unexpected swim.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, a sudden immersion into cold water, even on a fairly warm and sunny day, can bring on hypothermia in as little as 3 to 5 minutes. Cold water sucks heat from the body, dropping a person’s core temperature. This can lead to loss of consciousness and ultimately death.

Capsizing, swamping and falling overboard are the leading causes of cold-water immersion. Vessel operators can help prevent cold water immersion and hypothermia with the following steps:

n Advise someone on shore of any plans to be out on the water and a expected return time. Keep in touch by cellphone if plans are altered.

n Before launching or leaving the dock, check the vessel for seaworthiness. Make sure the drain plug is installed and test run the bilge pump. Once the boat is launched, start the engine and then check the bilge to make sure no water is collecting.

n Know the vessel’s capacity and don’t overload with too many passengers or too much gear.

n Make sure all crew members are wearing U.S Coast Guard approved life jackets. Unexpected immersion in cold water will quickly sap even a good swimmer’s strength. Winter clothing will also absorb weighty water and drag a swimmer under. Wearing a life jacket vastly improves chances of surviving an incident.

n Operate with extra respect for wind and waves and take large wakes at a 45-degree angle. Keep a low center of gravity and distribute weight evenly while underway, especially in a canoe or kayak.

n Maintain a proper lookout at all times, especially while underway during periods of low visibility.

n If immersed, try not to panic. Get breathing under control and leave all layers of clothing on to help prevent body heat loss. If possible, stay with the vessel and get out of the water as much as possible. If alone, anyone submerged should pull their knees toward their chest and arms into their sides. If there is more than one person in the water and rescue is not immediate, huddle together as a group.

Long-term immersion hypothermia can occur after 30 minutes or more. Seek medical help as soon as possible as post-immersion collapse can happen during or after a rescue. A drop in blood pressure can lead to cardiac arrest.

While winter temperatures increase the risk of cold-water immersion and hypothermia, being prepared and watchful will greatly reduce the risks of these situations and help ensure a safe and enjoyable day on the water.

To learn more about cold water immersion, the stages of hypothermia and how to treat it, visit

Submitted by Trevor Ruble, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries boating safety coordinator and member of the Smith Mountain Lake Water Safety Council