By Cheryl Costello
It’s an annual warning that bears repeating: Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. While we’ve heard it before, cold-water tragedies continue to happen in the Bay region. So the U.S. Coast Guard is again urging boaters to prepare for the worst if you’re on the water this time of year. If the water’s under 60 degrees, it’s drysuit season.
The day Bay Bulletin met up with the Coast Guard on Curtis Creek off the Patapsco River, the water was sparkling like diamonds and the air felt mild—t-shirt weather, even. But it was still late November, and the Coast Guard says we can’t be lured by the luster of beautiful water without preparing.
“Dress for the water, not the weather,” Petty Officer 1st Class Donald Abey tells us.
Abey says he relies on NOAA data to check local water temperatures. On this day, it was under 60 degrees. So despite the warmer air, the Coast Guard says to layer up.
“We always recommend wearing a life jacket. A life jacket is your first line of defense when entering the water or just being on a boat in general. But if you go out on a beautiful day in a t-shirt and shorts, you’re going to have less layers of clothing to keep you warm in the event you cannot get out of the water,” says Abey.
Bay Bulletin was there as a Coast Guard crew headed from the Patapsco into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where the water temperature factors into all the calls they respond to.
“Any call that happens, we are now also thinking about the cold weather. So if there’s a boat that’s disabled in a shipping channel, that’s a problem. With the cold weather, cold water, cold air temperature, it’s kind of getting higher on that distress list because of the potential of something happening.”
And the Coast Guard is serious about avoiding unnecessary risk: we asked to ride along with a crew, but the agency said it wasn’t safe to take us since they don’t issue cold water gear for guests.
“Hypothermia can happen even in waters you think are warm. But once that water temperature starts getting in the 70s, 60s, obviously 50s, your body can still go into hypothermia in those waters,” Abey says.
The cold water may have played a role in the death of a waterman on Taylors Island in Dorchester County earlier this month. Dale McClain, 72, never returned from hand-tonging for oysters. His skiff turned up empty, and his body was later recovered in the area. The water temperature was 53 degrees, according to Neck District Volunteer Fire Chief Steve Webster.
The Coast Guard follows a 1-10-1 guideline. “You have one minute to catch your breath. Then you have 10 minutes of meaningful movement. What that means is your dexterity is going to start to go away. So if you are not wearing a life jacket, if you are not against the hull of the boat or near land, you have only 10 minutes before you start losing feeling and dexterity in your extremities. And the last “1” is one hour of consciousness,” Abey says.
And, the Coast Guard reminds us—waders are not a substitute for a life jacket or drysuit. USCG recently released a PSA stating, “Waders are great at keeping you warm and dry, but if you fall into the water they can act as an anchor, making a precarious situation much more dangerous if not paired with a life jacket.”
Abey says Coast Guard crews will start gearing up as soon as water temperatures drop below 60 degrees. “Even on a beautiful day like this where it’s 70 degrees, we know that water temperature is cold, so we’re wearing our top level of defense drysuits to protect us from that water.”
He also points out that alcohol consumption can add to the risk, because dehydration can accelerate hypothermia.
The Coast Guard is constantly monitoring VHF Channel 16 in case of an emergency. And Abey encourages all boaters to tell someone where you are going in case you don’t make it home. Even if it’s a nice day and the water is sparkling.