The temperature of the water upon which Scouts conduct boating or rafting activities is a major risk factor, the potential effect of which may be ignored more often than not. However, no aquatic activity should be planned and carried out without due consideration given to the water temperature. The effect of cold water on participants in an aquatic activity can, at a minimum, be serious, if not potentially tragic. Remember, we are dealing with youth here!
The BSA Aquatics Supervision manual (Chapter 14) states that at water temperatures below 60 F, boaters should wear insulating clothing such as a wet or dry suit. At water temperatures below 50 F, “cold water shock” is said to set in fairly quickly, which the manual warns “causes an involuntary gasp for air, sudden increases in heart rate and blood pressure, and disorientation”.
Under such conditions, physical incapacitation can occur in less than 30 minutes. There have been a number of reported Scouting boating incidents where the effect of cold water appears to have been a contributing factor to the outcome.
This means that, early in the boating season, such as at Northern Tier, the water temperature may be a significant risk factor. Which means groups should have an understanding of what the temperature of the water actually is in the event that it might be a significant risk factor (based on locale, time of year, body of water, etc.). Bring a thermometer!
Ocean or open water boating can be particularly hazardous due to the water temperature as confirmed by this ocean kayak story, by this Clilean kayak tragedy involving the founder of North Face, and by this New Zealand kayak tragedy. See, also, this story about a tragic ending to a Maine open water kayaking activity. And, this tragic Scouting story involving canoeing (and capsizing) on a cold, wilderness lake in Canada, and this tragic Scouting story involving capsizing in the cold waters of Yellowstone lake.
In other words, it is imperative that participants dress for the water temperature. See Chapter 14 of BSA’s Aquatics Supervision manual (2013 edition) for a discussion of cold water safety. Unprotected immersion in cold water can be life threatening, irrespective of the air temperature.
Attention is directed to the informational websites National Center for Cold Weather Safety, and Coming Back Alive, which include a number of tragic cold water boating stories. See, also, this commentary about the dangers of boating on cold water, with the possibility of long-term immersion.
And, there is this story about a potential tragedy involving swimming in the cold waters of Yellowstone National Park.
Finally, Christopher Cunningham, in his book Sea Kayaker’s More Deep Trouble (2014), makes clear the hazards of cold water boating, stating, “It’s better to not think of hypothermia in terms of how long you can survive [in cold water]. The real question is how long you have before you make your first bad decision and how long you have before you’re unable to help yourself [or others].”
For further information on the adverse effect of cold water on unprotected boaters, attention is directed to the American Canoe Association movie “Cold, Wet, and Alive” which may be viewed at these links (in two parts):
Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_oKSL_RUwdY