Cold water kills. If you don’t believe it, or think that you’re too tough or too smart to wind up struggling for your life in wind-whipped 50-degree water, talk to a warden diver.

Or better yet, spend a day with the Maine Warden Dive Team.

Every year in early spring, warden divers are called out of bed in the middle of the night to work on a “recovery.” At the water’s edge, they suit up in their scuba gear and frequently spend hours underwater in a painstaking grid search for a “drowning” victim. Often, the fisherman or the boater never drowned. He simply perished from cold water immersion-hypothermia. A few years ago, victims of a capsizing on Moosehead Lake were found – not by a warden diver – but by a warden pilot. The missing boaters perished with their life jackets on.

Cold water is an equal opportunity killer. Warden divers know this from hard experience. It doesn’t discriminate. Young and old, male and female, big and small, tough experienced outdoorspeople and inexperienced beginners, they all started their day with every intention of having a good time on the water. Instead of a scrapbook of good memories, these drowning victims left their loved ones with an empty place at the dinner table and a bigger void in their lives.

If you are a boater or an angler who spends time on the water, here are some points that warden divers want to share with you.

• Your body loses vital heat 30 times faster in water than in air.

• Even with a life jacket, your life expectancy in 40-degree water can be as low as 15 minutes.

• When cold-water immersion lowers your body temperature to 85 degrees, your heart quits.

• A strong swimmer is lucky to swim eight-tenths of a mile in 50 degree water.

• Your body will lose heat much faster if you’re swimming than if you remain still in cold water.

In most cases, cold-water survival experts will advise that it’s best to stay with a capsized boat rather than try to swim for it, especially in the spring when waters are so cold. With 50 percent of heat loss coming through the head, you’ll increase your survival time by getting your head out of the water. Armpits and the groin are also high heat loss areas, so assuming a fetal position in cold water can help some. There is an additional advantage in staying with your capsized boat. A boat is much easier to spot from the air, or from shore than a person in the water.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife offers these survival tips. They are time-tested by the people who not only recover cold water victims, but who study the statistics.

• Tell someone where you’re going.

• Check the weather forecast.

• Wear your life jacket.

• Know the water.

• Don’t overload your boat.

• Dress properly. Wear wool (you can always take it off).

Sportsmen who push their luck are accidents waiting to happen. Nobody likes to call off a long-awaited chance to fish just because of a little blow. If you must fish in winter conditions, increase your survival odds by fishing the shorelines when the waves build up. If you do capsize, or your outboard quits, your chances of being rescued or making it to safety on your own are that much better. Besides, in springtime, when the lake’s temperatures remain fairly even, game fish often patrol the shallow shoreline looking for forage fish and comfortable temperatures.

V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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