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Cold Weather Sailing

Winter months can be ideal for sailing. With fewer boats on the water, there’s less “traffic to navigate and fewer wakes to crisscross. And wildlife encounters are more abundant—so don’t forget to pack a camera!


But with a chill in the air comes special risks. In fact, while more boating accidents occur during the warmer months, a higher percentage are fatal during cold weather months because survival rates drop drastically with the combination of cold air and frigid water temperatures. To stay safe, you need to take extra precautions:

Check the Weather

Do it before heading out and continue to monitor it round-the-clock, as it could change in an instant. Know the capabilities of your yacht and crew and what types of sea conditions it/they can handle safely, and at the first hint of bad conditions, start evaluating whether it’s time to return to shore.


File a Float Plan

And follow it to the letter! A good float plan will list the names of every passenger aboard, your destination, departure/arrival times, a description of your yacht and emergency contact information. Leave this information with a responsible family member or friend, and promise to check in with them as soon as you get back to shore. This way, they’ll know what to do if you’re overdue.


Load Up With Safety Equipment

Life vests should be worn year-round, but they are especially critical in cold weather. Not only will they give you enough buoyancy to keep your head above water if you should happen to fall overboard, they also offer thermal protection that will “buy” you time to be rescued, thus increasing the odds of your survival in cold water by hours. A search-and-rescue (SAR) vest is your safest bet, since it holds a personal EPIRB, hand-held flares, a signal mirror, a whistle, a strobe light and a survival knife—all tethered to the vest.

Important: Most people aren’t prepared for accidental immersion in water by already having a life vest on. They figure, “If worse comes to worse, I’ll grab it and put it on the water.” Truth is, this a difficult enough maneuver to accomplish in calm and warm water, and in cold water, it’s nearly impossible. Worse, doing so will waste a lot of energy and burn a ton of calories, thus decreasing your chances of surviving.

Also pack a batch of emergency space blankets. These are inexpensive, lightweight and easy to stow. If you have someone on board suffering from mild symptoms of hypothermia , these help reduce heat loss.


Prepare for the Worst

When immersed in water 50 degrees or colder, after that first gasp, it takes a mere 3 to 5 minutes to start hyperventilating. Your heart rate will accelerate, and panic will set in. Within 30 minutes, you lose feeling and dexterity in your extremities, which will hamper your ability to swim. Within 15 to 30 minutes, your core temperature starts to cool, and within an hour or so, hypothermia will likely begin to set in.

In other words, if you take a unexpected tumble, you want to be able to get back on your boat as quickly as possible. So, before you leave shore, make sure everyone on board knows the exact location of the ladder, the throwable life preserver and the VHF radio—as well as how to use these safety devices.


Bundle Up!

Dress for the water, not the weather. If you’re underdressed in cold air, wind rapidly sucks away body heat. In fact, hypothermia can sneak up on you even if the air temperature is in the 60s or warmer. What’s more, ocean sprays or an unexpected breaking wave that gets you wet can draw 25 times more heat away from your body than the air can.

The trick to protecting yourself from heat loss is wearing multiple layers that you can add or peel off as conditions dictate. Start with a moisture-wicking layer next to the skin. Moving moisture away from the skin reduces evaporated heat loss. Merino wool works best, absorbing up to 30% of its weight in water while still maintaining its insulating value. Modern synthetics also work well, but steer clear of cotton. While comfy, it actually absorbs water, dries slowly and loses its insulating value when wet.

Over the base layer, you want to wear one or more garments to hold in your body heat. Neoprene, a rubber-like material, is a good choice, as it insulates well. But since it works by keeping a moisture layer next to the skin, in below freezing temperatures, neoprene is not the insulator of choice. Better options? Try synthetic or wool fabric pieces of varying weight and thickness.

Your outer layer should be wind- and waterproof to allow perspiration moisture to pass out of the garment, keeping the inner layers drier. And don’t forget your extremities! You lose a lot of heat from your head, so wear a waterproof hat or hood. Also, a good pair of gloves and boots will provide increased grip and traction while they insulate and keep your fingers and toes toasty.


Keep One Hand On the Boat

Cold weather sailing can make you a bit, well, klutzy. When your feet are cold, it’s harder to maintain balance, and stiff fingers make it harder to tie knots, open latches or push buttons on electronic devices. Bundling up also makes you bulkier and less nimble than normal. So, when walking around on deck, or along the rails of your yacht, always keep one hand on a grab rail for extra support.


Avoid Alcohol

Many of us believe that having a couple of drinks makes us feel warmer, but in reality, the opposite is true. You lose heat faster with alcohol in your blood. A better idea? Stay hydrated by drinking lots of water, and save the celebratory cocktails for the dock.

Information reviewed by Michael Folkerts, recreational-boating safety specialist for Coast Guard District 17 in Juneau, Alaska; Michael.r.folkerts@uscg.mil; 907.463.2297; dnr.alaska.gov/parks/boating

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