Tips for safe cold-water boating

Ken Kieser
Being weather-wise is very important for cold-water boaters. Check the forecast for the weather and wind and monitor the conditions while you are out on the water.

Fall and winter offer some of the best fishing and many hunting opportunities, especially for waterfowl. Problem is, falling overboard could end your life. A simple fall overboard is the No. 1 boating accident event that leads to the most fatalities for recreational boaters, especially in cold water.   

While some of these accidents involved other factors, being able to quickly get back in the boat – without help – isn’t easy. A fall into cold water can turn into a life-threatening situation very quickly. It doesn’t take long for exhaustion or hypothermia to drain the life out of you.   

Kenneth Kieser

Brace yourself. When you realize you’re falling into cold water, hold your breath to avoid breathing in water if your head goes under for a moment. Having the presence of mind to lean back a little will help you avoid submersion of your head. 

Keep a cool head. The body will react to the plunge by going into cold shock, a condition characterized by hyperventilation, involuntary gasping and internal responses including hypertension (high blood pressure) and changes in pulse rate. It’s easy to panic under these conditions, but the fact is, you’ve got time. Even in near-freezing water, people in decent physical condition will generally have at least two to five minutes and sometimes much longer before losing the strength or coordination to pull themselves out. Don’t panic.

Stay afloat. Though your head may have gone underwater initially, you want to make sure you keep it out of the water. Tread water and lean slightly back to help you float more easily. Don’t worry about getting out right away; in the first minute you should just concentrate on keeping afloat and not drowning.

Control your breathing. The gasping and hyperventilating associated with cold shock begin the second you go into the water and can last up to four minutes. You need to normalize your breathing as quickly as possible to ensure that you have enough energy and awareness to get yourself out of the water and minimize the risk of cardiac arrest resulting from cold shock, a condition that is rare in healthy people, but can strike almost instantly in the elderly or people with pre-existing heart conditions. Concentrate on slowing your breathing and make an effort to take deep breaths.

Get as much of your body out of the water as possible. Grab on to your boat and use your arms and elbows to lift yourself up. It’s likely that you won’t be able to get all out, but you can get out as far as possible.

If you are unable to get out of the water after five or 10 minutes, you’re almost certainly not going to get out. Your body will become weak and uncoordinated, and you will eventually lose consciousness. Don’t give up. Instead, change your strategy. Many people who have lost consciousness after falling out of a boat in cold water and have still been rescued because they managed to keep their heads above water even while they were passed out. 

Boaters and anglers need to be prepared, especially if you are alone. Accidents can happen to you, so read the following tips from Deckee for ideas on surviving the unexpected.

Have a plan

An essential part of getting out on the water is that you have a plan for your trip in advance. Freshwater does not necessarily mean calm water, so consider how to get there and back, and take into account the conditions you are boating in. Let someone on shore know where you will be going and what time to expect you back.

Check the weather

Being weather-wise is very important for cold-water boaters. Check the forecast for the weather and wind and monitor the conditions while you are out on the water.  

Know your limits

Whether it’s your first time going out on the water or the 100th, it’s essential you know your limits. Not every boater has the same level of experience, and that’s fine. Make all your boating decisions based on the level of your knowledge, confidence and experience. If you notice that there’s a current or the wind seems a little strong, you can always change your plan.  

Bring an assistant

Having a friend with you while boating is a safe bet. If you feel unwell or get hurt, it’s important that someone on board can take you and the boat to safety. Briefing your buddy on how to start and helm the vessel before going out is essential, as you may be incapacitated and won’t be able to help them.  

Bring a life jacket

Bring enough life jackets for everyone on board and a throwable device. It is recommended that you wear a life jacket at all times while onboard. When choosing a life jacket, make sure it fits well. If there is a storm or other severe weather, passengers on board who are elderly, are non-swimmers or have a serious medical condition should wear a life jacket at all times.

Have a safety kit

Having the right gear aboard in an emergency is crucial. A first aid kit should be kept on board, equipped with a selection of bandages and a range of medication.

Deckee is a free boating app for local information, weather, navigation aids and official alerts and notices. This group is dedicated to boating safety and has an incredible amount of information. You can check their website at