Life Jacket Is Best Defense Against Fall Equinox And Hypothermia

By T
om Rau

As summer gives way to fall, warm days render to cooler nights as the sun slides towards the equator, tugging with it the Fall Equinox. It’s a subtle transition as well as a dangerous one for boaters caught betwixt and between.

Coast Guard statistics on recreational boating show that there is a greater chance of boaters dying in spring and fall, when colder water and fewer rescue responders and other boaters are present to assist those in need. It’s a time for boaters to seriously consider how to defend themselves if totally alone in a hostile life-threatening environment.

For those who may have their heads up their fall equinox, I plead with you to pay heed to the challenges seasonal transitions carry.

The surest way to deal with these challenges is by wearing a life jacket. Sound advice you would think, but too often ignored by boaters with deadly consequences. On September 8, 2007, at 7:15 a.m a fisherman drowned after falling off a 17-foot boat into Lake Michigan approximately two miles northwest of the Grand Haven pier heads.

According to Senior Chief Sean Sulski, Officer In Charge, Station Grand Haven a 24 year-old Grand Rapids man was fishing with two friends off a 17-foot fishing boat when he fell off the backside of the boat while reeling in a downrigger. A friend jumped into the water, but failed to reach him before he went under.

The U.S. Coast Guard conducted an aerial and surface search for the victim, but was unable to locate him. The Northwest Ottawa County and Sheriff's Department dive teams also responded to the scene but were unable to locate the fisherman who drowned in 110 feet of water.

Reportedly the young man was in good health, a fair swimmer, and in good physical condition. What caused him to topple overboard in fair seas, and water in the mid to high 60s, remains a mystery, but mystery or not, one thing is for certain—he was not wearing a life jacket.

The ease in which he fell overboard and drowned illustrates how quickly the unexpected can claim a boater’s life. That is the insidious aspect of boating mishaps: boaters simply don’t expect them to happen. Yet they do, all too often. Over the last two years, I’m aware of at least three dozen fatalities where people separated from boats and needlessly drowned, some under the most innocuous conditions as with the 24 year-old lad who drowned off Grand Haven.

But even when conditions on the water are nocuous, like late season cold water threats, too many boaters seem to deny the possibility of the unexpected. I can, however, guarantee what to expect should one fall overboard into cold water without a life jacket—the thereafter.

Let’s review some dire cold-water facts that hopefully will send deadly chills up the spine of those anti-life-jacket heathens who expect not:

• Body heat loss in cold water can occur 25 times faster than in cold air. If your boat is overturned, attempt to get up onto the overturned boat. According toCoast Guard studies, even in high winds, wind chill is not found to be a factor as long as the victim is clothed.

• Initial contact with cold water will rip the breath from your lungs causing “Torse Reflex,” which is an immediate and involuntary gasp for air in response to being immersed in cold water. If your mouth is underwater when gasping occurs, drowning is the most probable outcome, unless you’re wearing a life jacket. If you know you are about to fall into cold water, cover your face with your hands. This helps you to avoid sucking water into your lungs. Expect muscles to tighten and shivering to increase in an automatic reflex to produce more body heat. Some people liken it to a total full-body muscle cramp or spasm with no relief. Others liken it to sticking a finger into a light socket.

• Those people with a positive attitude will most likely survive longer if, and I stress if, they are wearing a lifejacket.

• Wear a life jacket at all times. Mark these words. This advice comes from seasoned chiefs who have too often dealt with the gruesome aftermath of victims that have drowned.

• At the first sign of trouble, radio for help or fire off a flare. Don’t wait until the lake has you by the ice cubes

• Wear several layers of clothing to reduce body heat loss. Protect your groin, neck, torso, and especially your head.

 • If you must enter the water, do so slowly to reduce respiratory/cardiac shock and to avoid swallowing water. That’s easier said than done. During drills, even though I have prepared to deal with the pain, it still jolts me. I can’t imagine the shock of unexpectedly landing in frigid water.

• Do not attempt to swim except to reach a nearby craft. Beware: the drift rate of small boats can exhaust even good-swimmers. More than once, I’ve hopelessly searched for the bodies of so-called good swimmers, much too often to no avail. Studies have shown that a strong swimmer has only about a 50/50 chance of reaching shore one-half mile away in 50-degree water.

• If more than one unfortunate soul finds himself or herself in cold water, huddle together and pull legs up toward chest with arms tight against sides. Of course, this maneuver is only possible if you’re wearing a life jacket.

I beg you, please do.

Tom Rau is a long-time Coast Guard rescue responder and syndicated boating safety columnist.

Look for his book, Boat Smart Chronicles, a shocking expose on recreational boating — reads like a great ship’s log spanning over two decades. It’s available to order at:,,, or through local bookstores.