Even though it hasn’t yet gotten really cold, we assume it’s still coming. Once the water drops into the 50s or even the 40s, it’s hard to imagine wanting to get out there. But there is a small group of hardcore water people who don’t shirk away from favorite activities — no matter what the conditions.
Most of these hardy souls are very safe and proactive when they head to the marine environment. They take precautions, use the appropriate gear for the conditions and check the weather forecast before heading out so they don’t get surprised.
But unfortunately, not everyone plays it smart and there are always a few people who need help during these cold months. The No. 1 mistake people make is not preparing properly for the temperature. Hypothermia, which is lowering of the core body temperature, sets in quickly.
Mild symptoms include disorientation, shivering and numbness and tingling in the extremities. The problem is usually people get into trouble before they realize they’re hypothermic and then can’t think themselves out of the situation.
Some examples of how this typically plays out includes the surfer who doesn’t wear the appropriate wetsuit for the water temperature, kayakers who don’t wear any type of wetsuit because they don’t “plan on getting wet” or swimmers who aren’t familiar with how fast they can be affected.
Something as simple as returning to shore and warming up in a vehicle doesn’t occur to the victim until the symptoms have progressed to the point where hypothermia sets in and self-rescue is no longer an option.
A winter water rescue is usually a big deal. Water conducts heat away from the body way faster than air does. Rescuers aren’t immune to succumbing to the same conditions as the victims if they’re not prepared properly.
Locally, water rescues are made either by other mariners or by a combination of agencies that participate in the Galveston Marine Response (Galveston Island Beach Patrol, Galveston Fire Department, Galveston Police Marine Division, Jamaica Beach Fire and Rescue and the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office Marine Division).
These groups generally are well prepared, but occasionally even professionals who work in all kinds of conditions can overlook something critical.
I remember a personal watercraft rescue crew heading out for what seemed to be a simple rescue about 300 yards from shore on a warm day without taking the time to put on wetsuits. The rescue got more complicated and took much longer. Even though the day was mild, the water temperature was very cold. There was a happy ending, but it was a serious lesson learned for a couple of our staff members.
So, remember when you head out to fish, surf, sail, kayak or even walk on the beach to think of what could potentially go wrong before you leave the house. Get out there and have fun, but be careful. There are people who need you as we bring in the new year together.