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Avoid chilling prospects

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 19, 2000


The water was 60 degrees, not cold by some standards, but to a Florida boy, it could just as well have been the Antarctic.

San Francisco Bay seldom gets warmer. As a result, swimmers get used to it. But when the word came to hit the water and start swimming, I wasn't prepared for what happened next.

The first thing to go was my breath. The cold water caused my lungs to seize up, and I spent the next five minutes gasping for air.

Then came the ice cream headache. The longer I swam, the worse it got. It got so bad, my face ached.

After half an hour or so, dementia kicked in. Fortunately, some guy in a rowboat started yelling and kept me from swimming beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and out to sea.

Finally, after 45 minutes of pain and suffering, I made it to shore, where I stumbled around for an hour or so looking for a hot cup of coffee.

"Are you okay?" my wife asked.

"What?"

"Are you okay?" she repeated. "Hmmmm?"

Welcome to the world of hypothermia. It doesn't take long, less than an hour in many cases, to become disoriented. As the body's core temperature drops, normal bodily functions begin to slow and shut down.

Contrary to popular belief, hypothermia is not "freezing to death." You can die from hypothermia when the temperature is well above 32 degrees.

Chances are, if you've been on the water on a cloudy day in light rain with a stiff breeze and gotten a bad case of the shivers, you may have suffered a mild case of hypothermia.

Hypothermia can become a killer if an angler or boater finds himself in cool water for even a short period of time. It is possible to become hypothermic in 77 degree water, and the Gulf of Mexico currently is colder than that.

A person immersed in water, 70 degrees or below, will lose body heat 25 times faster than he would exposed to the same air temperature.

A sudden plunge (like jumping into San Francisco Bay) can shock the system, causing the victim to lose consciousness and drown.

A person in 70 to 80 degree water could survive indefinitely. But drop the temperature 10 degrees, and exhaustion or unconsciousness can occur in as little as two hours. In 50 to 60 degree water, expected survival time is one to six hours.

Body size, physical fitness and percentage of body fat play a factor. For example, overweight people cool more slowly than thin people.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, October through March are the months when most cases of hypothermia are reported.

Here are a few tips, courtesy of the FWC, in case you find yourself stranded in cold water.

First, don't panic. Flailing will cause you to lose heat more quickly.

Don't remove clothing. Instead, button, buckle, zip and tighten collars, cuffs, shoes and hoods. A layer of water trapped inside your clothing will be warmed by body heat and help insulate you.

The head, neck, sides of the chest and groin are the parts that lose heat most quickly and need to be most protected.

Don't swim, unless it is to reach a nearby boat, another person or a floating object. Swimming in cold water will release the warm layer of water between your clothing and your body. It also will pump warm blood to your extremities, where it will cool quickly and reduce survival time by as much as 50 percent.

If you're with other people, huddle together for warmth. Otherwise, hold your knees to your chest to protect your trunk from heat loss and clasp your arms around your calves.

But the best advice is don't get yourself in that situation in the first place. Here are five tips to assure a safe outing in cold weather:

Leave a "float plan" with friends or relatives. Let them know where you are going and when you expect to be back.

Pack warm clothing and extra food and water in case your trip turns into an overnight one. Make sure you have enough life jackets for each person onboard. Store the jackets in an accessible place. Check them before you leave port. Once you are in the water it's too late to find your life jacket is in poor shape.

If you capsize in cold water, stay with the boat. Your chances for survival are better on an overturned boat than in the water.

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