Tips for safely boating in winter

Gino Bottino, MD

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As I write this, it’s cold and rainy in Connecticut. North of here, it’s snowing. The marinas are full of boats on the hard. Looking out in the harbor, I still see boats going out—open boats, fishing boats, sailboats, and even paddleboards. On weekends, frostbiting (winter sailboat racing) is common in most harbors. So, what does it take to boat safely in winter?

First, recognize that you may be isolated and often alone. In many areas, marine police and harbor patrol boats stop operating for the season, significantly increasing the time for help to arrive. For this reason, you should plan and be prepared to fend for yourself in an emergency.

Before leaving the dock

  • Make an honest assessment of your health and the health of your crew. Can you swim? How strong and physically fit are you? Do you have any allergies or special medical conditions?
  • Use the “I’M SAFE” checklist (I-illness, M-medications, S-stress, A-alcohol, F-fatigue, E-emotions) to see if everyone is fit to boat. Once everyone is together, use the “GAR” system: green to go, amber to be aware of issues, and red to cancel the event.
  • Assess the captain’s and crew’s experience and ability to function in trying conditions.
  • Check the weather forecast and wind strength. If the wind exceeds 30 kilometers an hour, don’t go out.
  • Create a plan for the day and file a float plan.
  • Dress in layers and don’t forget to wear a hat and waterproof gloves.
  • Make sure there’s a place to warm up on board.

While underway

  • Be aware that cold weather slows your thinking and reaction time. Exhaustion sets in faster, and physical activities take longer to complete.
  • Be extra careful onboard. Falling and injuries are more common during cold weather.
  • Stay hydrated. You can quickly become dehydrated in cold and windy conditions.
  • Wear sunglasses to protect from eye strain and headaches.

Questions to help you prepare

What happens if you get a cramp while paddling?

If you fall into the water, your ability to swim lasts only a short while and re-boarding can become a significant issue, so don’t paddle alone in winter.

Can you or your crew get help and handle the boat if someone onboard suffers a heart attack?

I have witnessed and responded to many more heart attacks in the winter than in the summer. It’s important to plan for this possibility.

Is your boat prepared for the cold?

Ensure that everything is in good working order. Batteries don’t last as long or charge as well in winter, and restarting the engine can be difficult.

Do you have backup navigation systems? 

The weather can change quickly, and your visibility can drop to zero, so make sure you have backup navigation systems.

Are you prepared for an emergency?

Make sure you have backup communication equipment as well as water rescue and re-boarding equipment. Have plenty of food and water onboard. Upgrade your medical kit to include space blankets, warming bags for feet and hands, and a more extensive trauma kit. Air splints can stop bleeding and stabilize a sprain or fracture. Don’t forget eye drops and ear drops. Ask your crew about their medications, and consider bringing cardiac and pulmonary medications as needed. Asthma attacks are much more frequent in the cold. Plan how you will manage acute medical conditions, such as heart attacks. If you have the room, carry oxygen and an AED.

More tips for boating in cold weather

  • Take shorter, less strenuous trips.
  • Share duties with the crew.
  • Rely on lists and notes.
  • Avoid alcohol consumption.
  • Get regular physical checkups with your doctor.
  • Practice boarding and moving around the boat safely.
  • Look for easier ways to load and unload the boat.
  • Relocate electronic equipment (GPS, radar and radio) to be more accessible and their screens easier to read.
  • Add additional rails and safety lines, and use non-skid to help with balance in areas you move about in.
  • Check for changing weather conditions often.
  • Practice throwing cold lines for docking when no one is around to help.
  • Plan trips for earlier in the day when you have more energy to avoid problems with stamina and fatigue.
  • Keep the cabin hatch closed and latched when underway to prevent anyone from falling into the cabin during a sudden change in acceleration.
  • Keep your body in shape with biking. Take Tai Chi or Yoga classes.
  • Don’t overload your boat.
  • Evenly distribute gear and equipment.
  • Use the buddy system for tasks.
  • Keep crew members informed on your boat location in case of an emergency
  • Leave a float plan with your friends, family and the marina when you go out on the water. The America’s Boating Club app saves your boating information, making filing float plans quick and painless.
  • Keep fingers out of lines when cleating, especially if people are still embarking or disembarking, as the boat can move and cinch the line.
  • Include emergency medicines in your first-aid kit and have a first-aid manual on board.
  • Take a CPR course.
  • Practice boating skills in cold weather, including docking and backing the boat.
  • Teach your crew how to walk downstairs backward (facing the steps), which is helpful when it’s snowy or icy.
  • Sail with passengers, when possible, as there is safety in numbers. If you’re boating on a paddlecraft, don’t go it alone.
  • Practice crew overboard procedures to maximize your chances of a successful recovery.
  • Lastly: Always wear a life jacket. 
Gino Bottino, MD

Gino Bottino, MD, has had wide experience in medical practice and emergency medical matters. A member of United States Power Squadrons First Aid Support Team (FAST) and the Safety Committee, Gino also has a background in competitive sail racing and is familiar with health-related problems afloat.

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