COLUMBUS — The first days of spring are attracting boaters and other recreational enthusiasts to their favorite Ohio waters. However, Ohioans should remember that even though the air temperature is getting warmer, the water temperature is still cold. Dressing for the water temperature and wearing a life jacket is extremely important.
“Once people enter cold water, hypothermia rapidly sets in, causing them to lose the use of the muscles in their arm and legs,” said Mike Miller, chief of the ODNR Division of Watercraft. “That’s why it is imperative that boaters wear a life jacket before heading out on the water; life jackets are a critical part of making sure that you and your family are safe while boating or paddling.”
Water temperatures are slower to respond to the change of seasons. Lake Erie’s water temperature is still approximately 40 degrees, and water temperatures in Ohio’s inland lakes and rivers are also very cold. It is recommended that boaters dress for the water temperature, not the weather, and consider wearing a dry suit or other hypothermia protective clothing when planning to be near cold water. Cold water reduces body heat up to 25 times faster than cold air.
If the water temperature is less than 50 degrees, the window of opportunity for rescue is only a few minutes if the person is not dressed for the water conditions. Information on how to dress for the water temperature is available at bit.ly/DressforCold.
Almost 90 percent of boating fatalities are due to drowning and nearly half of those are attributed to the effects of immersion in cold water. Total immersion in cold water is very painful, with extremities rapidly becoming numb. The disoriented victim can quickly panic as they lose coordination of their limbs. With these combined reactions, the victim may drown quickly.
Falling into cold water triggers the body’s cold water immersion responses, beginning with an uncontrollable gasping reflex. The victim may hyperventilate and find it difficult to get air into his or her lungs. A well-fitted life jacket will keep a person’s airway out of the water—which is most important when the gasping reflex begins. Heart rate and blood pressure increase dramatically, increasing the risk for cardiac arrest. The best prevention for this danger is to wear a life jacket. Wearing a life jacket while boating is as important as wearing a seat belt while in a car.
Ohio law requires life jackets to be worn:
• While riding a personal watercraft;
• While waterskiing or being towed on a similar device;
• For children less than 10 years of age on any vessel less than 18 feet in length.
It is particularly important to wear a life jacket in the following situations:
• When the boater cannot swim or is a weak swimmer;
• When the water is dangerously cold (the months of October through May in Ohio);
• When boating alone;
• During rough water/waves and severe weather conditions;
• When boating at night;
• In emergency situations; and
• In swift and fast current situations.
In addition to dressing for the water temperature and wearing a life jacket, boaters and paddlers should always file a float plan to ensure that family members and friends know when they will be expected back. A sample float plan is available at bit.ly/FileFloatPlan.
Given the person’s ability to keep his or her head above water and stay afloat, the following chart provides a general idea of survival times in water of varying temperatures. Factors that may alter these estimates include clothing or protective gear, the individual’s health condition and water conditions.
Water Temperature Exhaustion Death
32.5 Under 15 minutes 15 minutes or less
32.5-40 15-30 minutes 30-90 minutes
40-50 30-60 minutes 1-3 hours
50-60 1-2 hours 1-6 hours
60-70 2-7 hours 2-40 hours
70-80 3-12 hours 3 hours-indefinite