Boating safety in frigid water

Water temperatures are extremely low in Michigan and northeastern Wisconsin.

The calendar says it’s fishing season in Wisconsin, and the fishing opener in Michigan is just around the corner.

However, waters are still thawing, and boating safety officials are encouraging anglers to take special precautions to make sure they stay safe on their early season fishing trips.

Roy Zellmer, conservation warden and boating safety administrator with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, says that such conditions mean that anglers who fall into the water or have their boat flip will have less time to get to safety because hypothermia sets in quickly.

Hypothermia can occur when the body’s temperature drops below 95 degrees. “The loss of body heat results in loss of dexterity, loss of consciousness and eventually loss of life,” Zellmer says. “Water conducts heat away from the body 25 times faster than air.”

Zellmer encourages anglers to check in with local bait shops to find out what water temperature and ice conditions are and to follow these boating safety tips.

– Equip and inspect your boat before hitting the water.

– Always wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket. You can float without using energy and they cover part of your body thereby providing some protection from the cold water.

– Make sure you travel at the safe speed for your water conditions and surroundings – and that includes other vessels on the water around you.

– Avoid alcohol. Most hospitalized hypothermia cases involve alcohol. Alcohol impairs judgment and inhibits the body’s normal shivering trigger denying the body its most effective heat producing response.

– Stay low in the boat, don’t stand or move around unless necessary. Capsizing and falling overboard is often due to a victim losing balance or tripping over equipment in the boat. Never allow passengers to ride on gunwales or seatbacks or outside of protective railings, including the front of a pontoon boat. A sudden turn, stop or start could cause a fall overboard.

– Do not overload a boat.

– Avoid sudden changes in boat speed which can allow the stern wake to overtake and swamp the boat.

– Tell someone where you are going and when you will return.

– Plan what to do if you should fall in. If you know you are about to fall into cold water, cover your face with your hands to avoid gasping water into your lungs. Get back in the boat if possible; if not, get as much of your body out of the water as possible. See professional medical care as soon as possible.

If someone is not able to get back in a boat, they should limit body movement, and not swim unless they can reach a nearby boat or floating object. Swimming lowers body temperature and even good swimmers can drown in cold water, he says.

Instead, Zellmer says people should “assume the heat-escape-lessening-position” (H.E.L.P.). Begin by crossing your ankles, then cross your arms over your chest, draw your knees to your chest, lean back and try to relax.

Lt. Andrew Turner, who manages the Michigan DNR Law Enforcement Division’s recreational safety program offers the following boat safety tips.

– Wear a life jacket: More than 80 percent of drowning accidents in the United States are due to people not wearing their life jackets. In Michigan, anyone less than 6 years of age must wear a life jacket when on the open deck of any vessel. But wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) is recommended for everyone.

– Make sure your boat is properly equipped and your equipment is in good working order. In addition to all legally required equipment, such as life jackets and fire extinguishers, always carry a first-aid kit, nautical charts and an anchor. Make sure your navigation lights are working properly.

– Avoid drinking alcohol: Nearly half of all boating accidents involve alcohol. Studies show that passengers are 10 times more likely to fall overboard when they have consumed alcohol.

– File a float plan. Always let a family member or friend on shore know the who, what, when and where of your trip – and when you are expected back. Give them phone numbers for the local sheriff or U.S. Coast Guard in the event you don’t return when expected.

– Maintain a sharp lookout. Stay alert for other boats, swimmers, skiers and objects in the water. This is especially true when operating in crowded waterways, at night and during conditions of restricted visibility.

– Carry a marine radio or cell phone. Be prepared to call for help in case you are involved in an accident, your boat becomes disabled or you otherwise need assistance. Program the phone numbers for the county sheriff or U.S. Coast Guard in your cell phone. Make sure your cell phone is fully charged, but be aware that there are often gaps in coverage on the water.

“We also recommend a boating safety course for anyone who plans on taking to the water in a boat or on a personal watercraft,” Turner said. “Boating safety classes are offered at different locations around the state and online, making it convenient and affordable.”