Dead before the lifeboat is launched?

With two solo Atlantic crossings in the Ostar to his name, Jerry Freeman knows more than his fair share about survival at sea. Here, he warns of the dangers of cold shock – the killer in water below 15 degrees Celsius.

‘If one of your crew falls overboard this weekend he may be dead within five minutes of hitting the cold water. He may be dead before the lifeboat is launched but at least they can recover the corpse for you.

Cold Shock is the killer in water below 15 degrees Celsius; Bramble Bank reported a sea temperature of 9 degrees last Sunday 25 March. Thousands of keen sailors will be afloat next weekend blissfully unaware of the risks they are taking in the coldest sea water of the year, some will have sea survival certificates stuffed in their knickers as good luck charms, cycling proficiency certificates would be as much use. The biggest selling sea survival manual in the UK devotes just 47 words to cold shock whereas drinking warm turtle blood before it congeals and catching a fish in your sock warrants 70 words!

Cold Shock is about gasping, panic, hyperventilation, inhaling seawater, heart attack, stroke and rapid drowning. This is not Hypothermia, the favourite topic of sea survival instructors and scout leaders since Noah shivered in the Arc, hypothermia kills over a time scale of hours, cold shock kills in the first few minutes of immersion. A fit young crewman wearing a lifejacket may survive the sudden immersion but an 85-kilo sub-prime athlete in his fifties with an undiagnosed dickey ticker probably will not survive, and when did you last have an ECG?

Skippers can set an example by wearing their own lifejackets from dock out to dock back, and by ensuring that the newest and hence poorest equipped crew members are properly briefed, clothed and wearing lifejackets all the time.

Yachties going afloat in Spring sailing conditions would be wise to dress in the best of modern sailing kit, three layers is standard, and the top layer should be an ‘over the head’ smock top with neck seal and wrist seals, this will reduce the rate of inflow of cold seawater around the torso and may mitigate the severe pain of cold shock. Crowned with a fleece beanie hat that provides some insulation when wet and there may be half a chance of surviving the immediate immersion. An auto-inflating lifejacket with integral harness and spray hood is essential, not the separate spray hood worn in the dainty pack on the belt.

The lifejacket debate is currently at the same stage as was car seat belt discussion in the ’80’s, freedom of choice being the main argument, but once the decision has been made to wear one it feels strangely uncomfortable to be without it, who would drive now without a seat belt? This is not a plea for legislation but for information and a step change in the attitude of early season sailors in their understanding of the hazards they unwittingly face.’