Cold water is one of the biggest risks for recreational boaters on San Francisco Bay. In the summer, water temperature is in the 60s. In the winter, it’ll often be down into the low 50s. Both are cold.
The risks of falling in are higher if you are on a SUP, kayak, surfski or lightweight rowing boats. You’re less likely to get wet in a motorized craft, or a whitehall rowing boat, but you can still become badly chilled or hypothermic even if you never enter the water.
In cold, windy, rainy weather, you can lose heat faster than you create it, and this can also lead to incapacitation and hypothermia. This can easily happen to kayakers getting splashed and sitting in cold water, or while rowing slowly and piloting swimmers.
Whatever craft you use, you need to be able to swim, and you need to be prepared for possibility of accidents and finding yourself in colder water.
Cold Water Kills
Treat cold water seriously. If you fall in, there are three conditions that can kill you.
0-5mins: Cold Water Shock
Your body will experience a number of involuntary responses the moment you come into contact with cold water. The natural instinct is to gasp for air on falling in, and it’s possible to drown if you gasp while your head is under water. Gasping is typically followed by hyperventilation – rapid, out-of-control breathing. When your breathing is out of control, swimming becomes difficult and may lead to swimming failure. You’ll be less able to hold your breath, and if the water is rough, you’re at higher risk still. Increased heart rate and restrictions of blood vessels can lead to heart problems.
Wearing a life vest, and swimming regularly in cold water, are the best ways to protect yourself from cold water shock.
20-60mins: Incapacitation from the Cold
Cold water will drain warmth from your body and as this happens you will start to lose muscle strength, motor control, and your hands will become numb and non-functional. This may start to happen in as little as 20mins in the winter. Your body will become progressively weaker, and staying afloat and keeping your head above water will become more and more difficult. Eventually, you will be unable to recover and rescue yourself.
Wearing a life vest is the best way to keep yourself afloat (and alive) as your body succumbs to exhaustion from the cold.
Finally, if you’re in the water for long enough, body temperature will fall to dangerous levels. This can happen in just 30mins in the winter and an hour in the summer. Hypothermia starts with confusion, disorientation and eventually death. Not good.
Dressing for immersion, and being able to call for help is the best way to protect yourself from hypothermia.
It’s worth noting the window between 5 and 20 minutes is your opportunity to call for help and rescue yourself.
Five Golden Rules to Safe Boating
Here are five golden rules to look after yourself on the Bay!
Rule #1: Wear a PFD (Life Vest)
Wearing a life vests or ‘Personal Flotation Device’ (PFD) is an absolutely essential part of your safety. Imagine struggling to breath air as you try and stay afloat wearing clothes, gasping for air, hyperventilating, limbs going numb, rough water and wind waves driving at your face.
Please bring a life vest with you when boating from the club. The club has different types of PFD available that will suit different people for different activities.
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- Basic Life Vests – Nice to have extras in the boat for swimmers
These orange life vests are really for emergency use only. They are not comfortable to wear while you are paddling or rowing, and will get in the way of operating a boat. But they are good to have on board in case you may need to rescue someone.
- Type III Life Jackets – Kayaking & SUPs
These types of vest are more comfortable for day to day use, and are particularly good for kayaking. If you fall in, they provide flotation without you having to think about it. They also help keep you warm on cold days. However they are bulky in the front and that design interferes with rowing.
- Inflatable life vests – Rowing Whitehalls & Motorboats
These are lightweight and compact and will inflate when you tug on the red pull handle at the bottom left. At the Dolphin Club, they are not set up to inflate themselves. Inflatable vests are compact to wear and good for motor-boating and rowing the wooden boats where you do not expect to fall in the water. However, they are not great for shell rowing as the loose panels can catch on an oar. They are not great for kayaking either – when inflated they actually make it harder to get back on a boat.
- Fanny pack inflatable life vests – Rowing Shells & SUPs
These inflatable life vests are contained in a small pouch that attaches to your waist. They are unobtrusive and easy to wear, but the disadvantage is that they are not actually on you when you need them. You inflate the lifevest and then have to attach it. They would not help in a dire situation where you are struggling to stay above water. They are not recommended for use in difficult conditions or for weak swimmers…. but if you are a strong swimmer and rowing shells, or paddling SUPs these might work well for you.
- Wingman life vests – Rowing Shells
These new inflatable vests are ideal for shell rowers. Bulky lifevests get in the way of oars at the finish, and can even snag an oar causing a capsize. The wingman lifevest have the inflatable equipment at the back making for a more snug fit.
Life vests only helpful if you are wearing them. And you also need to wear them correctly. They should be snug and tight around you.
Rule #2: Dress for the Conditions
The clothes you will want to wear depend on the type of vessel you are in, the exercise you plan to do, and your likelihood of getting wet.
As a general guide, San Francisco Bay is rarely warm. Dress in layers, and be prepared to get wet. If you’re rowing a whitehall you are likely to stay mostly dry, but may get splashed. If you are rowing shells, kayaking, paddling it’s much more likely you will get wet.
Summer months (Jun-Oct)
In the summer months, the water is warmer – often in the low 60s, and getting splashed or falling in is less of an issue. But it’s still an issue, and with wind and spray you can quickly get cold. Wetsuits are still a good idea for kayaking and piloting. Dress in layers with synthetic clothing, no cotton. Consider wool layers close to the skin.
Winter months (Nov-Jun)
In November as the days get shorter, water temperature starts to fall and it’ll typically go from 60 degrees at the end of October to 50 degrees by the end of December. Those ten degrees make a big difference, and with cooling air temperatures you’ll need to rethink your wardrobe.
Kayakers and paddlers will want to start thinking about wearing wetsuits and booties. Shell rowers may need leggings and extra layers. Heavy rowing boat users may add sweaters.
If you’re out piloting a swim, you should dress much warmer than you might otherwise do, since you’ll be going slowly for a long time and not generating body warmth. When piloting swims, prepare to be cold.
Be careful. The water stays cold well into the summer months. The water in May can be still be very cold even when the sun is shining!
Rule #3: Bring a means to Call for Help
- Whistle / Noise-maker
A whistle enables you to attract attention. Great for warning a swimmer, or calling for help. If you fell in the water and couldn’t get out, a whistle may just save your life.
- Bright Clothing
A kayaker or rower between the waves can be hard to spot by other boaters or ships from far away. Do others a favor and make yourself visible with bright colored clothing.
- Marine Radios
Marine VHF Radios allow you to call for help, and check in with other boaters on the water. They are recommended for out-of-cove boating, and every time you paddle away from the shoreline.
Rule #4: Row/Paddle with a Buddy
It’s not only more fun to paddle with others, but it just makes good sense too. Use the Dolphin Club WhatsApp groups, or the Boating email list to connect with other boaters who may have similar interests to yourself.
Rule #5: Prepare for the Worst
An essential part of staying safe is simply thinking through what could go wrong, and preparing for eventuality.
If you swim regularly, you’ll be much better prepared for the shock of cold water. But you don’t even need to swim regularly. Just experiencing it in a safe environment and being prepared for it will help keep you safer.
- Practice Capsizing and Re-entry
Practice falling out and getting back into your boat. Your instructor will likely have you demonstrate this in training, but don’t just do it once. Practice repeatedly until you can get back on your boat quickly and easily. Remember you’re most likely to fall in the water when it’s rough and you’re not expecting it, so be prepared.
- Become Familiar with Cold Water
Jump in after a session in the water.
- Test your gear.
How high will you float if you fall in? Will those shoes get in your way? Is your PFD snug enough. Practice being in the water with all your gear on. Yes, it’s unpleasant, but there’s a sauna up the stairs and it could save your life.
- Stay Closer to Shore in Winter Months
With colder water, you have less time to rescue yourself and get help. Stay closer to shore for more safety. The stretch from the cove to the end of Chrissy Field is generally the safest, but there are still stretches where there are few places to exit the water. Be careful.
- Know your exits
On your next row, look for places you could exit the water if you lost your boat? Learn the territory.
Preparing for the worst is good practice for all aspects of boating as we’ll see in the next chapter.