Now that winter is fully here, water activities take on a new dimension. Whether you’re out there surfing, kite boarding, swimming, kayaking, fishing or any number of other activities, there’s a greater possibility that a small oversight could turn into a major emergency.

Hypothermia, or reduced body temperature, is the major threat. Once your core temperature drops, mental and physical acuity is diminished. It becomes easy to make serious judgment errors. Bad decisions that you normally have the physical endurance and vitality to compensate for can become life threatening. The classic example is the inexperienced surfer that doesn’t come into shore before he/she starts to freeze up.

Then when something happens, the surfer is unable to respond as normal. I remember one time when I was young that I stayed out too long and couldn’t remember my bicycle combination and no longer had the dexterity to work the lock with my numb fingers.

With the water in the lower 60s, and dipping into the 50s, proper equipment is a serious issue.

Most surfers in Texas have one full-length wetsuit that is 3mm, with sections that are 2mm. Each person is different but, generally, with a decent quality wetsuit, this works well down to about 58 degrees. It can be used for short periods in colder water, but you need to know when to get out. For water lower than that, you’d need something that’s around 4mm to stay out for any prolonged period of time. Experienced water people generally have a range of wetsuits and associated booties, gloves and hoods to allow for a variety of conditions.

Another factor along the beachfront is the recurrent north winds that blow through with frontal systems. Because for us this means the wind blows offshore, it can cause its own hazard. When the wind blows offshore, the water near the shoreline is calm, since there’s not enough fetch, or distance of water, for it to build up little choppy waves. Also, because there are structures near the water, the wind is partially blocked.

People can enter the water expecting a certain set of conditions and, after getting blown off a couple hundred yards, that can change quickly. Each year, we make scores of rescues where someone drifts off on a float or surfboard and can’t paddle back in against the chop and wind. These situations are very dangerous because it’s hard to find someone once you can’t see them from shore. Combine this with winter conditions and hypothermia, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

All that said, there’s much our water offers in the winter months. For those with the proper experience level and equipment, the surf and uncrowded conditions have plenty to offer. Just make sure someone knows where you’re going and how long you plan on being out. Most importantly, stay in tune with your environment, your body conditions and weather patterns.

And, of course, know when to say when.

Peter Davis is chief of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. The views in this column are Davis’ and do not necessarily represent those of the Beach Patrol, Galveston Park Board of Trustees or any other entity.

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