When we move into the annual Cold Season there is no reason to give up paddling - winter is another season in which to enjoy our river's many moods - but it does call for more preparation and forethought. The lowered temperatures of both air and water leave much less room for error.
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Columbia River water temperatures near Wenatchee during the winter months are typically 45 degrees F or below. The period of time that a person has available for rescue when immersed in water this cold is 30 minutes or less before hypothermia causes immobility. This calls for increased precautions on the River during the winter months.
Wear a PFD!
While some object to wearing a Personal Flotation Device, particularly when rowing, it can make the difference between survival and drowning in a cold water capsize. A PFD keeps your head above water, allowing you to concentrate on getting back into your boat or making it to shore on your own.
Do NOT wear cotton clothing!
Try this experiment: collect three socks, one each made from cotton, wool, and synthetic fiber. Weigh each when dry. Dunk them in water and allow them to drain. Now weigh them. Which gained the most weight by percentage? Touch them. Which feels coolest? Warmest? Which do you think would provide you with the best protection in a cold, wet environment?
Strength in numbers
For wintertime paddling, three is the minimum safe number of boats. If one boat were to capsize, two would be available to assist the victim(s). If the victim was unable to get back in his or her boat, one of the remaining two could guide the victim to shore while the other would collect the capsized boat and gear and pull or carry them to shore. The group should stick together at all times so that emergencies can be quickly recognized and acted upon.
Equipment that should be standard year-round becomes imperative in the winter environment. In addition the PFD mentioned above, they are:
- Whistle - used by someone in distress to alert other paddlers, and should be attached to your PFD and easily accessible. While the old standard "referee's whistle" is inexpensive, is has limited sound projection capability. Survival whistles are designed for higher performance and are not that much more expensive.
- Water rescue throw line - used to assist a capsized paddler or to tow an abandoned boat to shore.
- Space blanket - inexpensive and compact, it uses a reflective liner to redirect infrared energy back to the body. It is also wind- and waterproof, and could be a life-saving permanent addition to your boat kit.
- Cell phone - enclosed in a waterproof container, used to contact rescuers in an emergency. Even better is one having a GPS capability so that you can give accurate location coordinates to rescuers.
Have a plan
Frequently ask yourself, "What would I do if I or one of my companions capsized here?" Think of your distance from shore, wind and water conditions, and location of the nearest assistance. How long would it take to get out of the water? To get to a place where treatment for hypothermia could take place?
Get the victim out of the water as quickly as possible. Water has higher thermal conductivity than air, so submersion is water chills a victim much faster than does air of a comparable temperature.
Once safe on land, assess the victim's condition. Is he conscious? Is she able to walk? Are you within walking distance of the Lindston Barn? Walking helps the body to generate heat. Paddling back to the dock is discouraged; since the chilled victim will now more susceptible to a repeat capsize.
There is a hypothermia kit in the curtained-off changing room on the second floor of the Barn. It contains towels, warm clothing, a space blanket, heat packs, and a chart describing hypothermia symptoms and treatments. All wet clothing should be removed and replaced with dry clothing before transport to a warmer environment. Shivering is a good sign - itâ€™s the body's natural response to cold, and uses involuntary muscle activity to generate heat. If shivering stops, the patient requires medical attention ASAP.
If out of walking range of the Barn, or the victim is not ambulatory, you need assistance. If the victim is ambulatory and can reach a road, call a dependable friend who lives close by to come and get you. If you can't reach a friend quickly, or if the victim is not ambulatory, use your cellphone to call 911. Be prepared to give the dispatcher a brief description of what happened, the victim's physical condition as best you can determine, and your location (here's where the GPS function comes in - exact latitude and longitude greatly speeds up the search process).
Keep the now-patient insulated from the ground and air with whatever is available - clothing, grass, leaves, cardboard - anything to slow additional heat loss. Do not remove the patient's clothing in the field. Even wet, if it's not cotton, it will provide some protection.
A body loses heat through three mechanisms - Conduction, Convection, and Radiation.
- Conduction is the transfer of heat through direct contact of a warmer surface with a cooler surface. Put insulation between the patient and the ground.
- Convection is the transfer of heat from a warm surface to cooler surrounding air - the basis of Wind Chill ratings. Get the patient out of the wind and/or into a windproof cover.
- Radiation is heat loss through infrared radiation from a body into space. A space blanket addresses both the Convection and Radiation problems
After the patient has been treated and is safe, the Club requests that a member of the party complete an Incident Report, found in https://www.wenatcheepaddle.org/documents/HandbookandSafetyPolicy.pdf, while participants' memories are still fresh. Submit the completed report to the WRPC Board. The purpose of an incident report is not to assign blame, but for the Club to use as an informational tool for improving policies and procedures related to safety on the water.
Your comments, corrections and suggestions are welcome. Please address them to Info@WenatcheePaddle.org.
Happy Rowing and Paddling!
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