Because the Gulf of Mexico is considered warm waters by most, it is that ideology that makes it so dangerous. Yes, the water is much warmer than Northern waters, but the human body reacts the same way to 58-60 degree water as it does to 45 degree water. You will first encounter a cold water shock, which will cause you to start gasping while somehow shouting some expletives between the gasps, you will ball up in an attempt to stay warm, you will shiver uncontrollably, your fingers and feet will start losing mobility, and without floatation, you will not be able to keep your head above the waterline.
Cold water immersion is survivable if you take the proper steps. If my article “The-Seven-Steps-to-Survival” you will learn that Recognition is the first step. If you fail to recognize that a ditching is possible, as some do, and if you fail to place floatation (life-vests and life-raft) in your aircraft, you will likely be one of the many sad statistics stating, “The occupants had no floatation devices”.
While in the U.S. Coast Guard stationed in Kodiak Alaska, I had the privilege of serving with Dr. Martin Neimeroff (Captain). Dr. Neimeroff was the Coast Guard’s leading expert for cold-water immersion. Through his teachings, I learned that hypothermia (lowering of body core temperature) has an adverse effect on the human body, even in small degrees. This human machine was designed to operate at a constant 98.6 degrees, and any variation up or down causes ill effect (hyperthermia/hypothermia).
The human body generates a small amount of heat through shivering (Stage One Hypothermia 98.6 F to 95.0 degrees). Feeling Cold, Shivering, Drowsiness, Slurred Speech, and Disorientation are all symptoms of stage one (mild hypothermia). Note: A person with “Stage One” hypothermia will appear to be intoxicated.
As you can see, a variation of only 3.6 degrees from your normal body temperature can cause adverse effects that can severely affect your ability to do the things necessary to survive.
Now lets go a step further. Lets say your body temperature drops below 95 degrees. You are now entering Stage Two Hypothermia (95-91 degrees). The symptoms include diminished shivering, decreased level of consciousness, and slower rate of respiration. For the person in water (P.I.W.) without floatation, this is where you are starting to get into very serious trouble. The shivering you experienced in stage one hypothermia has caused you to use up a lot of energy. Once the shivering stops, your body will no longer have the ability to re-heat itself. You will be very exhausted and unable to maneuver from on coming waves and swells. You will start gasping in mouthfuls of water and will not be able to stay above the surface, thus drowning will eventually occur.
Now move down to the next level. Stage Three (Severe Hypothermia) 91-86 degrees. Symptoms include muscle rigidity, and loss of consciousness. I hope I don’t have to explain what happens to a P.I.W. without floatation when he loses consciousness.
Hypothermia stages will depend on the time in the water. This will vary from person to person and a lot has to do with body mass. For instance, a child would be quicker to succumb than a man. The thicker the body mass, the longer the survival time.
The likelihood of dying from hypothermia is slim for a PIW without floatation. His cause of death would most likely read; Drowning due to the inability to keep his head out of the water. He drowned, but the drowning was likely caused by the result of losing control of his arms and legs or losing consciousness due to cold water immersion.
Even though the EXPECTED TIME OF SURVIVAL for a person in 75 degrees water to be from 3 hours to Indefinitely, the “Indefinitely” wording is based upon the condition that you are wearing a lifevest and are able to keep your head out of the water even in the event of unconsciousness (as all CG approved lifevests are designed to do).
The water temperature in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico today (April) is averaging around 75 degrees. Depending on time in water and what you have on, you could become unconscious within three hours! From November through March the see cooler water temperatures give you even less time to survive. This is why it is so very important that you get out of that “heat robbing” water.
The major heat loss areas are the head, neck, underarms, sides of chest, and groin. When you submerse your body in water, you immediately start losing heat in these areas through: Convection (the movement of “colder than you” water), and Conduction (skin touching anything cooler than the body temperature).
The human body response is to protect the core chest and heart area. The blood is getting cooled too fast (x25 in water), so the human body response is to close off blood flow to your outer extremities, for example; your fingers and your toes. Soon after, the blood will continue it’s withdraw from the arms and legs and will pool in the core area of the body. As well, blood flow to the brain will be restricted, thus causing unusual behaviors such as muttering incoherent sentences, swimming off, and stripping down, (removal of clothing and floatation) a common find with many wet hypothermia victims.
Because of the blood now pooling in the core area of the body, any sudden jolts such as hoisting the survivor in a vertical position, jumping down off of a helicopter after rescue, or even walking can cause a sudden rush of this pooled blood into your legs. This would cause your heart to beat even harder to get the “now pooled in your legs” blood back up. Lack of blood and oxygen to the heart and brain = Cardiac Arrest. Hypothermia patients will claim they are okay to walk, but they should always be transferred in a horizontal position and kept this way until medical attention can be administered. The pooled blood in the core area has to eventually go back into the legs and arms. Ideally you would want this return to happen slowly, and under the care of a medical facility.
Conduction from water submersion occurs twenty-five times faster than air!
By assuming the Heat Loss Lessening Position (H.E.L.P.), you can protect the vulnerable heat loss areas of your body (head, neck, underarms, sides and groin).
Please take note that this position can only be maintained with the help of a floatation device (U.S. Coast Guard approved lifevest). Without the floatation, you would have to straighten your legs and kick, exposing your groin area, and move your arms outward to steady yourself, exposing your neck, underarms, and sides. By maintaining the H.E.L.P. position you can extend your survival time by hours.
Liferafts, are they necessary in the Caribbean waters? I say absolutely!
In a real life scenario waves will be knocking you all around. You may be excited to see a rain cloud coming your way but yet surprised to find that these rain squalls actually pack quite a punch. Granted, a liferaft ride through a squall would be exciting as well, but at least you won’t be swallowing sea-water during your ride.
By removing your body from the water, you increase your chances of survival by over 70 percent! By getting into a canopied liferaft, you not only get out of that heat robbing water, but you can now protect yourself from the sun, wind, and rain, and you’re assured that all members of your crew are together.
If your ditching occurs late in the day, you stand a good chance of an overnight stay. That’s eight to ten hours! A life-raft can be your best friend, your life-saver, in this situation. By climbing into a liferaft, you have increased your survival time by getting out of the water, you have increased your target size, and you should now have excess to signaling equipment that may facilitate in your being found.
Even on land, the liferaft acting as a tent will provide the same protective and signaling features. Why would you not carry a liferaft?
Huddle Position (can only be accomplished with floatation). Place injured persons or children in the center. The idea is to “lock in” the water in the center of the huddle. This “locked in” water will be warmed by the combined body heat of each survivor. No, it will not reach 98.6 degrees, but it will be a lot warmer than the water on your backside. Remember the five major body heat loss areas. You still need to cross those legs, arms to the side, use your inflated vest bladder to block water from and insulate your neck area and, if you’re lucky enough to be wearing a hat at this point, pull it down just a little tighter.
The HUDDLE Position not only provides shared warmth, but it also helps to overcome survival obstacles as a team while significantly enlarging your target size for searchers. Utilize The Seven Steps to Survival Plan.
Searchers in your area? Reverse around and place yourselves back to back while locking arms. Now kick away! This circle splash can be seen two miles away by air searchers and about a half a mile to a mile away by marine assets.