Recently on the Tenn-Tom Waterway, working life jackets could have greatly improved two separate boating accident outcomes.
Five men entered the frigid water Feb. 7 after their boat hit a stump and sank. The outdoorsmen spent more than an hour in the freezing water without life jackets before Lowndes County Fire and Rescue pulled them to safety.
The men were treated for hypothermia at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle in Columbus and have recovered. The owner of the boat was given a warning citation for not having proper personal flotation devices on board.
Park Ranger and water safety coordinator with the Army Corps of Engineers Joseph Ponder reported that the incident makes a total of seven accidents that could have turned fatal in the last month on the waterway.
The second incident involved two fishermen whose boat overturned in the Luxapalila River due to strong currents. Ponder reported that the men were wearing life jackets, but that the jackets were old and in disrepair.
“In an emergency, any serviceable life jacket is better than none,” Ponder said. “Above all they need to fit and be in good repair.”
Ponder explained that 90 percent of all drownings can be prevented by the use of a life jacket and that not wearing a life jacket is the number on cause of water recreation drowning.
“Proper-fitting personal flotation devices (life jackets) that are in serviceable condition prevent drownings, assist in rescue and reduce the effects of hypothermia,” Ponder said.
Hypothermia is particularly a cause for concern with air temperatures on the climb as of late.
The warmer weather lures outdoor enthusiasts to water activities, but most don’t consider that water temperatures are still hovering just above freezing, which makes the risk of hypothermia a real possibility.
Hypothermia can occur both in water and on land.
Generally, immersion hypothermia, which occurs in water, is most common in water temperatures below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. It takes away it’s victim’s ability to swim or stay afloat.
The first signs of hypothermia can be seen when a person shivers. That is the bodies first response to cold conditions as shivering engages muscles in the body, which help generate internal heat. Shivering usually occurs when the body has reached 95 degrees.
At just 93.2 degrees internal temperature, victims immersed in water begin to become unresponsive though still conscious. When the body drops to 86 degrees, proper muscle function and breathing severely decrease.
Wearing a life jacket is the number one thing a person can do to save themselves from hypothermia and drowning, Ponder said.
Not only does a life jacket help keep a person afloat, it also works as an insulator to protect the person from the cold water for longer than not wearing one.
In addition to wearing a life jacket, another step to take should one find themselves in frigid water is to get back in the boat.
“The importance of reboarding your craft—even if it’s filled with water—can’t be over-emphasized,” said Dr. Robert S. Pozos, former director of the
Hypothermia and Water Safety Laboratory at the University of Minnesota–Duluth. “Most small boats if overturned, can be righted and bailed out. In fact, modern small craft have built-in flotation that will support the weight of the occupants, even after capsizing or swamping.”
If a watercraft cannot be righted, Ponder encourages people to climb on top of the craft to get out of the water as soon as possible.
Another safety tip is to keep clothes on unless absolutely necessary.
“Almost all clothing, even hip boots and waders, will float for an extended
period of time,” Pozos said. “As long as you remain calm and don’t thrash about, air trapped within the fabric will hold a considerable amount of buoyancy.”
Pozos and Ponder encourage boaters not to drink alcohol while out on the water. Contrary to popular belief, alcohol does not increase a person’s body heat. It does, however, dilate blood vessels, which tricks the brain’s heat sensors to think all is well within the body. This often staves off shivering, which is the body’s first defense against hypothermia.
Lastly, when in a boat, stay seated as often as possible. Ponder explained that many boating accidents occur when people try to walk around on the boat and trip over items inside. And though most boaters don’t intend to enter the water, accidents occur, and a life jacket should always be worn when around water.
“Be a survivor. Wear a serviceable life jacket for those who care about you and to make the job safer for those risking their lives to rescue you,” Ponder added.