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Going out on a boat can be a fun, relaxing experience in all kinds of weather. However, depending on the season, you may need to take extra precautions to ensure that you're safe. Whenever the water is cold, you need to be aware of the risks of hypothermia, which can happen if you fall in and don't get out quickly enough or if you don't dry off quickly enough. Once you're aware of the symptoms, you can treat it before it becomes too dangerous.
Hypothermia on boats can be caused by a variety of dangerous conditions. You don't just have to be in the water to be at risk, although being in cold water for extended periods of time is very dangerous. If your clothes become wet, you may also be at risk. You can also be in danger if you're wearing clothing that's inappropriate for the weather, such as a thin jacket or short sleeves. The most surprising cause of hypothermia, though, is physical activity in the cold. Activity should warm you up, but it can also make you sweat, especially when you're wearing a lot of insulating layers. That sweat makes your clothing wet and removes the insulating air pocket between your skin and your clothes. This can happen even in temperatures up to the 50s, so it's important to be aware of how much you're sweating and the effect it can have.
One of the first things you lose when you start to be affected by hypothermia is your reasoning skills. That's why it's doubly important to drill the symptoms and treatments for hypothermia into your head before it happens. If you become confused or tired or lose your coordination while in cold conditions, you should stop what you're doing to warm up. As hypothermia progresses, you stop shivering and your heart rate rises. The situation is even worse if you fall into cold water. The first thing you will do if you fall into cold water is gasp, even if your head is below water: It's instinctual. Then, your muscles will lose their coordination, making it difficult or impossible to swim. By the time you've spent 30 minutes in freezing water, you will have lost consciousness, and it's not likely that you'll survive. This is one reason why life jackets are so important on boats. When it becomes difficult for you to swim, a life jacket can keep you afloat, even if you lose consciousness. Staying above water is the most important part of surviving a drop into freezing water.
Fortunately, hypothermia is treatable as long as you recognize the symptoms. The best thing to do is to get to a warm place. This may not be possible; if it isn't, get something or someone to shield you from the cold as much as possible so your body can warm itself up. If your clothes are wet, they must be removed and replaced with warm, dry clothes. Cover yourself in blankets and coats. If you have another person with you, they can use their body heat to help you stay warm through direct skin-to-skin contact under a blanket. And drinking a warm, sweet beverage with no caffeine or alcohol can help warm your body from the inside out. This is a gradual process and cannot be rushed with very hot things such as heat lamps; not only can they cause burns, but such a drastic temperature change can shock the heart and cause it to stop beating. The most important thing is to keep yourself warm, dry, and moving as little as possible.
Fear of hypothermia shouldn't keep you off of yachts in the winter. However, it's vitally important to know the signs of hypothermia and the proper treatment, just in case. Always wear your life jacket and go out with at least one other person. Make sure that you have extra clothes to change into if yours get wet, and keep lots of blankets on hand to keep yourself safe. Once you're ready, you can have a fun winter sailing adventure!
Written by Stephen Moynihan