LAKE TAHOE — Recently, (as reported by the local media), a 31-year-old man jumped in to the water from a rental boat near Camp Richardson to swim to shore but never made it. In spite of many Good Samaritans and El Dorado County Search and Rescue on scene for training, he quickly dropped below the surface. He was retrieved from 7 feet of water, taken to the beach and then to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Unfortunately this is the third such event this winter/spring (one on Donner Lake and the other also off Camp Richardson). All had one thing in common: The victims lost the ability to swim and sank (all very close to shore).
The Coast Guard Auxiliary Sierra Division trains with personnel from the Coast Guard Station Lake Tahoe on the water all year long and is familiar with the hazards of cold water immersion. Most people, when asked, assume hypothermia is responsible for these cold water accidents.
The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators has published an excellent 10 minute video on this subject on YouTube; just search for “Cold Water Boot Camp.” We urge everyone involved in water sports on our local Alpine Lakes take 10 minutes and watch it. It is the basis for many of the points in this release.
This video points out that hypothermia doesn’t become a serious factor in cold water fatalities until the victim is exposed for about 30 minutes or more.
What does happen when you are suddenly immersed in cold water? An involuntary gasp can cause you to swallow water; this is followed by uncontrolled breathing and loss of muscle coordination. Cold water incapacitation is caused by muscle and nerve cell reactions to cold water. In 5 to 10 minutes you lose the ability to swim. Only after 30 minutes does hypothermia becomes a factor. The stages of hypothermia eventually cause you to become unconscious and then die (about an hour after immersion).
Obviously if you aren’t wearing a life jacket, once you lose the ability to swim, it’s all over, and that can take as little as 5 to 10 minutes.
Our most important lesson: Everyone out on the water should wear a life jacket. This is particularly true when the water temperatures are cold. In cold water immersion it gives you time to be rescued.
The Cold Water Boot Camp video suggests a 1-10-1 rule:
• You have one minute to get your breathing under control.
• You have ten minutes of meaningful movement to get anything done you need to do before you lose control of your limbs.
• You have one hour before you become unconscious.
In the Coast Guard Auxiliary, when we’re under way during the winter, we all wear specialized winter survival exposure suits that will give us 7 hours of useful consciousness in 40-degree water. When out on patrol we see many kayakers who are wearing similar suits and life jackets, but we also see some without. It is particularly worrisome to us to see stand-up paddle-boarders with no exposure suits or life jackets.
We strongly encourage paddle sport participants to carefully weigh the benefit they gain with proper attire and a life jacket. Life jackets are required to be on board all stand up paddle boards (and to be worn by those 12 and younger).
When you’re on the water and the water temperature is cold we urge you to use a little common sense and wear a life jacket. It is very difficult to put one on once you’re in the water and particularly when you are losing control of your limbs.
If you’re a local who is on the lake when the water temperature is cold (as it is now, hovering around 50 degrees) please consider the above very carefully and help us spread the word. Tahoe attracts lots of tourists who can’t wait to get out on the water and enjoy all sorts of water activities. To those of you who provide them with a way to do that, please consider giving them some advice about life jackets that could save their lives.
— The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary created by an Act of Congress in 1939 is the uniformed civilian component of the U.S. Coast Guard supporting the Coast Guard in nearly all its missions. For more information on the Coast Guard Auxiliary, please visit cgaux.org.