Centre for Maritime Safety

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Maritime safety issue: Cold water

Cold water is a significant contributing factor in fatal and serious injuries in boating. This is because if you fall into the water, cold shock can set-in very quickly and hyperthermia is a risk. While cold water incidents are most likely in winter, a considerable number occur through to the end of spring.

For this reason, cold water is a priority safety issue under the Maritime Safety Plan which has a goal of reducing fatal and serious injuries by 30 per cent by 2021 and Towards Zero by 2056. 

Even if it is a sunny warm day, the water can be dangerously cold.  If the water is below about 15 degrees, it is dangerous if you fall in, or are forced into the water.

Alpine waters are especially dangerous as cold temperatures can occur at any time of year. 

In NSW, these include:

  • Lake Burrinjuck
  • Lake Eucumbene
  • Lake Jindabyne
  • Khancoban Pondage
  • Swampy Plains River
  • Mannus Lake
  • Googong Reservoir
  • Blowering Reservoir
  • Pejar Dam
  • Yass River
  • Lake Oberon
  • All navigable waters within Kosciuszko National Park.

Not all alpine waters are in areas of high elevation.  This is because some water bodies regularly receive very cold runoff water from mountain areas.

Cold water also occurs in non-alpine waters.  In winter and spring, it can occur in most parts of NSW, and even if the weather is warm, the water can still be cold, and life threatening if you fall in.

Tips to stay safe around cold water

  • Always wear a lifejacket. If you fall into the water it will help you manage the initial cold shock, and it will provide you with some thermal protection. You’ll then be able to conserve energy, and it will give you precious time to get back into your vessel or for rescue assistance to arrive.
  • Plan ahead and check the weather – remember, warm sunshine does not necessarily mean warm water.
  • Always dress appropriately for the conditions. If you are wearing warm-winter clothing, ask yourself could you swim in it if you fell into the water? If not, wear a lifejacket.
  • Know your boating environment and always check the water temperature. The water can be dangerously cold even if the air is warm and it is slow to warm up in spring. Strong winds can push surface waters across a lake, dragging up cold water, and ocean currents can sometimes bring cold water to the surface.
  • Before you go, always let someone know where you’re going and give them an estimated time of return.
  • If you’re boating in an open runabout or paddle vessel like a canoe or kayak, take special care as these vessels are the most prone to capsize and swamping.
  • If you do fall into the water, try to get back onto your vessel as quickly as possible, or get as much of your body out of the water that you can.  Only swim for shore if it is very close and you are sure you can make it there quickly.  Even if the air is cold, you will almost certainly lose heat faster in the water.

If you have no other choice but to stay in the water, try to stay with the vessel and huddle with anyone else who is in the water to reduce the loss of body heat.  If you are by yourself, stay in the heat escape lessening position, where you draw your knees to your chest and wrap your arms around your knees and clasp your hands together so you’re in a tucked position. By doing this, it will protect you from the body's three major areas of heat loss - groin, head/neck and rib cage/armpits. Wearing a lifejacket will help to keep you afloat.