November Safety Feature: Winter Wisdom

October 31, 2012

A Timely Reminder from the USRowing Safety Committee

When the weather turns cold, many rowers bid a sad goodbye to their oars, but a rugged few insist on staying on the water, no matter the date or the temperature. US Rowing always wants rowers to err on the side of caution, (and spend some time on the erg), but we know there will always be those who want to row as long as there is water.

Most rowing above the mid-Atlantic in the east and above Texas in the Midwest stops when fall racing season is over, but some clubs and rowers have developed procedures to allow “cold water” rowing. The policies of each club should be dictated by their situations. If you row on an open body of water with little hope of an imminent rescue or if you row on a small river that is lined with houses, your policies need to reflect those differences.

Are you a single sculler heading out solo or is your team rowing through the winter? Are you accompanied by a coach or out alone in your boat? Are you near other crews on the water? Is your route a busy thoroughfare with walkers, bicyclists and cars within earshot?

Cold water rowing is dangerous. No matter what level of blade expertise you have gained, accidents happen. Even a stable recreational shell can flip if you encounter sizable debris or wakes. We know, it can’t happen to you. It can.

Below are survival times for persons immersed in cold water. These times are for people in the water, but remember that even if you get out of the water, how long will you be in wet clothing on top of your boat or on shore? Uncontrollable shivering, disorientation and impaired judgment start to occur before exhaustion or unconsciousness.

Water Temp. Exhaustion or Unconsciousness

Under 32°  Under 15 minutes
32.4 – 40°   15 – 30 minutes
40 – 50°      30 – 60 minutes
50 – 60°      1-2 hours

Here are some of our recommendations and examples of cold water safety rules from clubs:

  • Row with a safety launch. Not only might you get coaching, they can throw you a life jacket, pull you out of the water, get you back to the boathouse fast and even take care of your boat.
  • We know the law says if you row on a body of water that is deemed “navigable” by the United States Coast Guard, you do not have to have a life jacket in your boat with you, but what about common sense? If you row during the winter months, take an inflatable life jacket and stuff it behind the footboard. (Or better yet, keep it ON). If you go out with a safety launch make sure the launch has enough life jackets for everyone under their supervision.
  • If you row without a safety launch, then row with a buddy or someone who can help you get back into your boat, who can give you a dry shirt and, especially, to help you if you become disoriented due to the onset of hypothermia.
  • Carry a cell phone in a waterproof container. Even a Ziploc bag can help. Call for help before you become so cold that you won’t be able to work the phone. If you are going to call for help, you have to know where you are – which means knowing some specific locations on shore to help the rescuers to find you. Telling 911 that “you are at the 1,500-meter mark” is not helpful, but knowing a street name or number, a building or major landmark is.
  • If your cell phone is not operable on the water, carry a sound-making device. Whistles, horns, something loud enough so that somebody on shore will see you in the water. A whistle in the middle of a large river is NOT enough.
  • The logbook is good, but ONLY if there is someone checking it. If you are the last/only person on the water, it may be hours or even days before someone checks the logbook. Don’t rely on it unless you know that someone will come looking for you if you don’t sign back in.
  • If you row on a river or a body of water that has a large fluctuation of speed, know what the speed is. Some clubs have a flow meter link on their sites and you can check to see how fast and how high the water flow is. Usually with high levels of water, comes a high level of debris.
  • In winter, too, much of our water time is in the dark. Use your boat lights. If you collide with another boat and flip, you will be in cold water.

Below are a few policies that are currently used by clubs to determine when (or if) to allow boats on the water:

  • At many clubs, when cold weather rules go into effect, the boathouse shuts down. This usually occurs when the fall season is over and there are not safety launches out any more.
  • When water and air temperature combine to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. For example, if the water is 50 degrees and the air is 40 degrees, then the cold weather rules go into effect.
  • Water temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit. If the water gets below 50degrees, then the survival time is probably not long enough for a rescue and precautions must be take.
  • A common restriction is the “four oars” rule. This keeps singles and pairs off the water. The theory being that with four or more oars on the water, the likelihood of flipping is greatly reduced.
  • A more aggressive rule, when the water temperature is 50 degrees the “four oars” rule goes into effect AND rowers must have one of the following: a safety launch following with all the safety supplies; must wear an inflatable life jacket; must wear a neoprene suit. Not only do the rowers have to have four oars, they also need other gear to help them survive a cold plunge.

Cold weather rowing brings a set of risks. You and your club need to take precautions to protect yourself and the boathouse. Flipping a boat, hitting a log or getting into some other accident is bad enough, don’t make it more dangerous by not following a few simple rules that make sense for your safety, your body of water and the club.

If you must row all winter, use sound judgment before you launch. If it is windy, icy, with swift current, debris-filled waters, DO NOT GO OUT.