Capsized

The boat has flipped. You're soaked, cold, and losing strength. Whether you live or die depends on your next move. Do you know what to do?

Field & Stream Online Editors

It can happen like this. One moment, a father-and-son hunt is going exactly as it should. Half a dozen bluewing teal on Montana's Gallatin River lift off in a flurry of water and beating wings. Young Bradley mounts his 870 pump and starts swinging. Bridger, a big yellow Lab, is tensed for a retrieve. The boy's father, Ken Barrett, J-strokes hard off the right side of the canoe to pivot the bow for the shot. In the next moment the shotgun recoils, the dog jumps into the river, Ken's paddle lifts out of the water, and the canoe flips upside down.

In the seconds that follow, the two hunters find themselves in the same position as thousands of other sportsmen each year: They're capsized in cold water, their waders are filling fast, and their lives are hanging in the balance. Strong swimmers, the Barretts manage to reach a shoal where they can stand, but recalling the incident today, Ken wonders what would have happened if they'd been trapped by their canoe against a snag and forced under, if the river had been wider or deeper, or if its current had been more powerful.

"I think I could have got the waders off..." he says and lets the silence indicate the other possibility.

Sportsmen Are Not Smart Boaters
More than 200 sportsmen each year end their seasons-and their lives-in boating accidents. Most of them drown after falling overboard or capsizing. Hunters and fishermen make up one-third of all boating fatalities, in spite of being only a small fraction of the total number of boaters. But that doesn't take into account all the uncounted, unreported close calls. And one doesn't have to go far offshore to find danger: The majority of fatalities occur in small open boats on inland waters, within a long cast of land.

Bill Griswold, the chairman of the National Safe Boating Council and a former Coast Guard helicopter pilot who has rescued scores of fishermen off the Florida and Alaska coasts, says it comes down to seven simple words: We don't know what we are doing. "Most hunters and fishermen regard themselves as people who use boats, not as boaters," says Griswold. "They're our hardest group to educate."

He points out that sportsmen favor inherently unstable craft, including johnboats, sneak boats, and canoes; they overload them until freeboard all but disappears; and they usually hunt and fish in remote areas where rescue is unlikely.

Weather is another strike against us, and we never seem to learn. The turbulent spring months can be even deadlier than the fall, when we're in more of a cold-weather mind-set. The seductively warm spring air belies the frigid water below, and that can lead to severe consequences if a sportsman drops his guard. In 40-degree water, hypothermia can render limbs useless in 30 minutes. At that point, death is not far behind.

My brother Kevin got a taste of what the end feels like years ago when he and a friend capsized their canoe more than a mile from shore on Michigan's Higgins Lake. The two were not wearing life jackets, and after the canoe sunk to the bottom in 100 feet of icy water, they unintentionally committed one of the cardinal sins of coldwater survival: They lost track of each other in high waves. Kevin tried to swim toward a fire on the distant shoreline, but he floundered and went under several times, gulping water and coming close to drowning. He was submerged and feeling sleepy-he recalls seeing his life flash before his eyes in a series of images like snapshots flickering on a screen-when he heard the drone of the motorboat that was rescuing his buddy, who had attempted to swim toward a different point on shore. Kevin credits that sound with giving him the strength to fight to the surface one last time to wave for help.

** Surviving a Spill**
If your boat capsizes, the struggle to survive begins immediately. The shock of the icy water triggers an involuntary gasping reflex at causes you to inhale water. Your blood pressure and your heart rate skyrocket, which can cause cardiac arrest or loss of consciousness. If you aren't wearing a life jacket, you may never make it back to the surface. If you do manage to fight to the top, the decisions you make in the next few minutes are critical.

  • Because water saps body heat 25 times faster than air of the same temperature, your first priority is to get out of the water. Forget about retrieving your shotgun or fly rod. They'll be salvageable after a day or two on the bottom-you won't. But if you find something buoyant, like a cooler or a seat cushion, grab it if it helps you stay afloat. Hang on to your canoe paddle, too: It floats and can be used to propel yourself to safety if you are able to get back into the boat.

  • Stay with the boat unless the shore is so close you have no doubt that you can swim to it quickly. Keep in mind that your hands will swiftly become numb and useless in typical spring and fall water temperatures of 45 to 50 degrees. When it's that cold, even strong swimmers wearing life jackets have died before covering 100 yards; if the water is 40 degrees or less, you'll be lucky to make it 100 feet. Swimming exposes more surfaces of the body to cold water, hastening the onset of hypothermia. Also, it's also much easier for rescuers to spot a boat than a tiny head bobbing in open water.

  • Try to right your craft (see below) and climb back in. If it's an outboard, crawl up over the motor at the stern. To reenter a johnboat or canoe, have one person hold the gunwales to steady it while the other person climbs in from the opposite side. It's more difficult for a solo boater, but if the vessel is partly swamped so that the gunwales are near the waterline, attempt to scoot in from the side and rock the boat back and forth to empty water. If you can't get back in, tread water while pulling or kicking your vessel to shore. In a river, maneuver your body upstream so you don't get trapped between the boat and a boulder or logjam.

  • If you're unable to right the boat, try to crawl onto the overturned bottom. If that's impossible, cling to the side with one hand and get into HELP, the Heat Escape Lessening Position (see previous page) to protect the parts of the body that lose heat fastest. Keep your head out of the water and stay calm until help arrives. If you have companions, huddle together in a circle with your arms around each other's shoulders to minimize heat loss and boost morale.

  • Stay dressed. Do not discard hats, clothing, or shoes. Instead, button, buckle, and zip yourself into them as snugly as possible. Air trapped between layers of clothing will help keep you afloat, and water trapped between the layers will be warmed by your body heat. Remove waders only if they have filled with water and are dragging you down. Trapped air in belted waders can actually help you float if you keep your legs high.

Staying Dry
Preventing accidents starts with proper boat maintenance and outfitting. Equip yours with a fire extinguisher, spare motor parts, readily accessible oars or paddles, a boat bailer, and a signal kit (including a whistle, flares, and a marine VHF radio). On inland waters, pack a two-way radio or a cellphone sealed in a waterproof bag. Prepare for contingencies by filing a float plan, and then stick to it. Listen for small-craft warnings on the National Weather Service radio band. Use your head by parking your ego at the dock. If ominous storm clouds are brewing, ask yourself if a pair of mallard breasts or a couple of walleye fillets are really worth risking your life. Err on the side of caution.

  • If you decide to set out, heed the carrying capacity of your boat, and count each dog as one person. Decoys, waders, tackle boxes, trolling batteries, and winter clothing tilt the scales quickly, and a boat that's even marginally overloaded can capsize-not necessarily because it's unstable, but because it can't handle the brunt of a 3-foot wave caused by the wake of a passing inboard.

  • Never stand to fish in an unstable craft or to shoot in any boat. Designate safe fields of fire before the first birds wheel into the spread. Don't lean over the gunwales to retrieve decoys (or to net a fish); use a hook. Distribute weight evenly, keeping the load low and centered, and train retrievers to sit tight until you give the command.

** A Deadly Attitude **
Most drownings could have been prevented if the victim had worn a U.S. Coast Guard¿¿¿approved personal flotation device (PFD). When five deer hunters capsized their overloaded johnboat on the Mississippi River off the Missouri shore near Angle Island in November 1996, only the two wearing life jackets stayed afloat until help arrived, which follows a survival pattern repeated across the country. But when the Boat US Foundation conducted a focus group with hunters and fishermen in 2001, they found that such stories had little impact on sportsmen. Few of us are willing to change our habits, even after a close call. Comments about PFDs included: "You don't go out there to be safe, you go out there to hunt," and "Sure there's one in the boat¿¿¿we just have to find the damned thing."

It doesn't help that many fishing and hunting TV celebrities set a poor example by rarely wearing life jackets except when motoring to or from destinations. Since nearly all man-overboard fatalities and many capsizes occur when a boat is anchored or drifting, wearing a PFD for only the run in or out is as effective as donning a raincoat for only one hour during an all-day storm.

  • What you wear under your PFD is also important. Dress in layers that conserve heat when wet, such as wool and fleece, and wear a hat to prevent heat loss through your head. If you frequently fish or hunt on big, cold water, consider investing in a parka-length flotation jacket (for example, the Stearns flotation jacket, Model 7060, $152; 800-333-1179; www.stearnsinc.com), which is filled with foam and can be cinched tightly around the waist to provide flotation and insulation, significantly prolonging your ability to survive frigid water.

  • Some boating experts advise against wearing waders on board, but Boat US's Chris Edmonston, who manages the foundation's Intervention for Hunters and Anglers program, stresses that what matters is the type of wader and how it is worn. Unbelted canvas boot-foot waders are anchors by another name, but buoyant neoprene chest waders, secured by a belt, can aid flotation should you capsize (if so, keep your legs elevated to prevent air from escaping).

When my friend Joe Gutkoski sunk his solo canoe in Wyoming's Yellowstone Lake on a day when the water was only a few degrees abonally overloaded can capsize-not necessarily because it's unstable, but because it can't handle the brunt of a 3-foot wave caused by the wake of a passing inboard.

  • Never stand to fish in an unstable craft or to shoot in any boat. Designate safe fields of fire before the first birds wheel into the spread. Don't lean over the gunwales to retrieve decoys (or to net a fish); use a hook. Distribute weight evenly, keeping the load low and centered, and train retrievers to sit tight until you give the command.

** A Deadly Attitude **
Most drownings could have been prevented if the victim had worn a U.S. Coast Guard¿¿¿approved personal flotation device (PFD). When five deer hunters capsized their overloaded johnboat on the Mississippi River off the Missouri shore near Angle Island in November 1996, only the two wearing life jackets stayed afloat until help arrived, which follows a survival pattern repeated across the country. But when the Boat US Foundation conducted a focus group with hunters and fishermen in 2001, they found that such stories had little impact on sportsmen. Few of us are willing to change our habits, even after a close call. Comments about PFDs included: "You don't go out there to be safe, you go out there to hunt," and "Sure there's one in the boat¿¿¿we just have to find the damned thing."

It doesn't help that many fishing and hunting TV celebrities set a poor example by rarely wearing life jackets except when motoring to or from destinations. Since nearly all man-overboard fatalities and many capsizes occur when a boat is anchored or drifting, wearing a PFD for only the run in or out is as effective as donning a raincoat for only one hour during an all-day storm.

  • What you wear under your PFD is also important. Dress in layers that conserve heat when wet, such as wool and fleece, and wear a hat to prevent heat loss through your head. If you frequently fish or hunt on big, cold water, consider investing in a parka-length flotation jacket (for example, the Stearns flotation jacket, Model 7060, $152; 800-333-1179; www.stearnsinc.com), which is filled with foam and can be cinched tightly around the waist to provide flotation and insulation, significantly prolonging your ability to survive frigid water.

  • Some boating experts advise against wearing waders on board, but Boat US's Chris Edmonston, who manages the foundation's Intervention for Hunters and Anglers program, stresses that what matters is the type of wader and how it is worn. Unbelted canvas boot-foot waders are anchors by another name, but buoyant neoprene chest waders, secured by a belt, can aid flotation should you capsize (if so, keep your legs elevated to prevent air from escaping).

When my friend Joe Gutkoski sunk his solo canoe in Wyoming's Yellowstone Lake on a day when the water was only a few degrees abo