How to Survive Going Overboard in High, Cold Spring Waters

They’ve already been pulling folks out of the water around here. The Coast Guard sending rescue swimmers after overturned boats in the inlets, local sheriff’s departments pulling canoers out of the trees on flood-swollen rivers. Sunny spring days are great times to jump in a boat, but this time of year, in many places, danger lingers below the water surface. Go overboard in cold water or high water, and two things will help keep you alive: In moving water, know how to fight your way through a strainer. And in still water, know how to hold on to every bit of body heat with the HELP position.

Strainers are obstacles in a river or creek that water can flow through, but that a boat or a body could not. Downed trees on the riverbank are the most obvious strainers, but not the only ones. If you dump in a swift-moving river or creek, the rule of thumb is to float on your back, head upstream and feet up, so you can prevent foot entrapment and see what’s coming. But when what’s coming is an unavoidable strainer, it’s time to take matters into your own hands. Turn over on your stomach, face downstream, and swim powerfully towards the obstacle. Try to outpace the current. As you approach the strainer, time your final strokes and a powerful butterfly kick to get your head and chest out of the water. Place both hands on the obstacle and push up, kicking hard. You want to launch yourself up and over, or up and through the strainer, so fight your way clear.

If you go overboard in cold water, hypothermia is the enemy. The more of your body you get out of the water, the better. Crawl up on anything floating. And the more you flail around, the more your body cools off. Unless you plan to swim to safety, stay still. Assume the H.E.L.P. (Heat Escape Lessening Posture). Hold your arms across your chest and firmly against your sides, and pull your legs up toward your chest. This buffers the core areas of your chest, armpits, and groin. And find your hat. Half of your body heat can be lost through your head.

Photo: USGS