It doesn’t take ice to make cold-weather boating dangerous. Even if the water is near 60 degrees, you risk shock and hypothermia if you fall in. For the first couple of years after I bought my boat, my crew and I made it a point of pride to get on the water all year ’round. We were out there in mid-winter, braving stiff winds, chop and spray, and even light snow. The boat — a seaworthy 29-footer — didn’t seem to mind a bit. And we thought we were intrepid, being the only pleasure-boat in sight.

“Wonder where all the other boats are?” we’d ask each other with knowing smirks. It didn’t take long before we realized fully that cold-weather boating isn’t really macho. It’s risky, even if you wear the proper anti-exposure coveralls or drysuits. And it’s stupid to shove off without any cold-water protection at all, as we did. Had any of us gone over the side, he would have been in serious trouble and fast.

Survival experts say falling into cold water risks two life-threatening conditions that can kill you outright or at least sharply reduce your ability to survive. First, people who fall into cool or cold water experience an immediate cold shock that brings on a deep and sudden gasp that can set off severe hyperventilation. Your airway becomes blocked, and if your face is immersed, you can inhale the water and drown. At the least, you’ll find it significantly harder to hold your breath when you need to. Although the shock lasts only a minute, the risk of dying from hyperventilation is high. Your heart rate quickly plummets. And your breathing rate and blood pressure soar. Within 10 minutes, you start to lose muscle coordination and become unable to use your fingers, arms, and legs. Swimming is impossible, even for normally good swimmers.

The second risk is from hypothermia. After 30 minutes, your body begins to lose heat so rapidly it can’t maintain its normal temperature. You start to shiver. Blood flows to the vital brain, heart, and lungs, bypassing other areas. Soon your body begins to shut down. You become lethargic, and quickly lose consciousness. The next step is death.

It doesn’t take icebreaker conditions to make cold water dangerous. Water temperatures of even 60 degrees can affect your ability to function, says Dr. Bill Boicourt, an oceanography expert at the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Center for Environmental Science. When it’s below 50 degrees, you’re really taking a risk.

Despite the Bay’s status as a relatively protected temperate-zone coastal area, the water here gets surprisingly cold in the winter. The National Oceanographic Data Center says the average water temperature around Annapolis in January and February is 35 to 36 degrees, just behind Woods Hole, MA, one of America’s coldest salt-water harbors. “The Chesapeake is some of the most deadly water there is,” says Mario Vittone, a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer who grew up near Annapolis and now works as director of maritime safety for the Virginia-based VLinc Corporation. “In January, the water here is so cold that you could fall off the pier and not be able to swim back.”

The average water temperature around Annapolis in January and February is 35 to 36 degrees, just behind Woods Hole, MA, one of America's coldest salt-water harbors. (photo by Al Schreitmueller)

What can you do to increase the chances that you’ll be able to survive if you fall into cold water?

  • Before you get under way, put on as much warm clothing as is practical, making sure to cover your head, neck, hands, and feet. Items such as wool sweaters and thermal-insulation long-johns can help keep you warm even when they get wet.
  • Wear a life jacket. No fooling. It helps keep you warm if you fall in and enables you to stay afloat without your having to exert extra energy to tread water. That, in turn, conserves body heat and can help stave off the onset of hypothermia for up to an hour, significantly longer than if you aren’t wearing a life jacket.
  • Stay away from alcohol, both when you’re under way and if you fall into the water and are rescued. This isn’t just a teetotaler’s harangue. Not only can alcohol impair your judgment, especially in cold water, but it also hastens the onset of hypothermia, which can shorten your overall survival time.
  • Don’t boat in cold water without wearing a survival suit — anti-exposure coveralls or drysuit, depending on the temperature. Coveralls are adequate for water temperatures of between 50 and 60 degrees, the Coast Guard says. When water temperatures are below 50 degrees, Coasties themselves are required to wear full-fledged drysuits. Warning: Neither kind of survival suit is cheap. Simple anti-exposure coveralls cost $450 or more, and a drysuit — equipped with a sealable neck-band, hood, gloves, and boots — runs $750 for the unlined version, or $900 or more with a recommended thermal lining. (If your survival suit doesn’t have adquate flotation, wear a life jacket as well.) Drysuits also are uncomfortable and difficult to put on. It can take 20 to 40 minutes to get into a drysuit, but it’s clearly worth the effort if you end up in the water. Coast Guard personnel often use the buddy system; you get another crew member help you into your drysuit, and then you return the favor.
  • Train your crewmembers on how to prepare for boating in cold weather and what to do if they fall overboard or if your vessel capsizes or sinks. At the least, ask them to spend an hour watching the videos on the Cold Water Boot Camp website at It’s worth a look even if you’re only a summertime boater.

If you do fall overboard or have to abandon your vessel and plunge in, here are some common-sense steps you can take to conserve your body heat and ward off hypothermia.

  • If you see you’re about to become immersed in cold water, cover your nose and mouth and go in as slowly as possible, keeping your head above water. Calm yourself, control your breathing, and then think about what to do next.
  • Get out of the water as quickly as possible by lifting yourself back onto your capsized boat or climbing onto a large piece of floating debris. If you’re rescued by another boater, get out of the wind and try to get dry. Even after you leave the water, wearing cold, wet clothing can impede your efforts to warm up.
  • Don’t try to swim to shore, even if it looks reasonably close. Swimming makes you lose body heat some 35 percent faster than if you can remain still. In such situations, it doesn’t take long for you to exhaust your ability to generate heat. Then you’re really in a mess.
  • If you’re wearing a life jacket, draw your knees up together, keep your arms tightly against your sides, and lean your head back to keep your face out of the water. This is known as the Heat-Escape-Lessening Position, HELP, for short. It helps you contain heat loss from your head, armpits, and sides, the areas most likely to let heat escape.
  • If you end up rescuing someone who has fallen into cold water, make sure the person exerts as little energy as possible. Wrap the victim in dry clothes and warm blankets and keep him sheltered from wind and water. Don’t give him alcohol to help warm him up. Call for medical help immediately.
  • Don’t declare victory early. Many victims drown when they are just a few feet from the safety of a rescue boat or pier. “When a victim sees the shore and thinks he is safe, his body stops releasing adrenaline, he freezes up, and he literally cannot move another inch,” the Cold Water Boot Camp website warns.

About the Author: Art Pine is a USCG-licensed captain and a longtime Chesapeake Bay powerboater and sailor.