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Cold-Water Boating Safety

What you should know before boating in cold weather.
Boating Safety

Maybe it’s the solitude of early-season boating that is so alluring. There is certainly a stark beauty to it. Trees are just beginning to bud, and blooming shrubs add to their vibrant colors. Often, wildlife encounters are more abundant as well, thanks to the relatively few boaters out enjoying the sometimes-frosty experience. But with that beauty comes added responsibility and the need to be prepared for unexpected hazards.

Take, for instance, an incident in Alaska, when three men decided to go duck hunting. The air temperature was 39 degrees; the water registered just 40. As they launched their small boat into a tidal marsh, the gusty wind began opposing the tide, creating a tight, heavy chop that started breaking over the bow. Within minutes the boat swamped and capsized, and the three friends found themselves in bone-chilling water.

“I believe it was the coldest I’ve ever been,” one of the hunters told the Juneau Empire. Luckily, the three had a few key factors in their favor. They were all wearing life jackets, they were able to climb on top of or cling to the capsized boat, and one of them used his cell phone, stored in a Ziploc bag, to call the Coast Guard station in Juneau. Their quick thinking and the Coasties’ fast response time turned this into a cold-weather emergency with a happy ending.

Unfortunately, emergencies don’t always end so well. Michael Folkerts, recreational-boating safety specialist for Coast Guard District 17 in Alaska, says many people just don’t understand the risks involved with boating in the cold. Alaska has the highest recreational-boater fatality rate in the country, and part of the problem stems from boaters getting into trouble in marginal weather. Thankfully, Folkerts and his colleagues have much hard-earned wisdom to share so that, wherever you live, you can prepare.

Cold-Water Safety

Before You Go

It’s understandable why boaters like to go out in the cold. “The fall, winter and early spring can be some of the most beautiful times to be on the water,” Folkerts says, “but the weather can change in an instant.” Therefore, you should take a few precautionary steps before you head out.

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