A PFD greatly reduces the chance of sudden drowning due to cold shock and swimming failure. With few exceptions, cold shock causes people to immediately lose control of their breathing. As a result, many of them suddenly drown – even though they can swim.
Cold water drowning can occur instantly if cold shock causes a person to gasp while their mouth is submerged. That particular phenomenon used to be called "Sudden Disappearance Syndrome", and it's worth emphasizing that you don't suddenly disappear and sink to the bottom if you are wearing a properly secured PFD.
Drowning can also occur during the first several minutes of cold shock due to swimming failure or inhaling water as a result of wave splash. If you aren’t wearing a PFD, you will drown as soon as you can no longer swim or tread water.
The Cold Facts
Father and son were due back around 6:30pm, less than an hour before sunset, and when they didn’t return by 6:48pm, Julie called the Mason County Sheriff’s office and reported them missing. Sheriff’s deputies and search teams with divers and three boats responded and arrived at the lake after dark. Witnesses at the lake clubhouse reported that they had seen Sheldon and Jace in a canoe as late as 6:13pm, but later spotted the canoe floating empty and apparently called 911.
Although Limerick Lake is a small body of water that covers 129 acres, the search for Sheldon and Jace was greatly complicated by darkness. The canoe, with two life jackets inside, was quickly located, but it wasn’t until 9:20pm that little Jace was found floating face-down in the water. He was not wearing a life jacket.
The search for Sheldon continued without success until 11pm. It was resumed the next morning with 14 divers and boats using sonar gear. The lake has an average depth of only 9 feet, but the water is murky with very poor visibility, and it wasn’t until a week later, as the family was holding a memorial service for Jace, that Sheldon’s body was found.
Within an hour, a family out on the lake saw an overturned canoe and discovered Michael nearby, floating dead in the water, his arm looped through a life jacket. There was no sign of his brother Randy. Neither man was wearing a personal floating device when the canoe capsized, and the one Randy should have been wearing washed up on shore a short while later.
The Mat-Su Borough dive team and Mat-SAR dog teams continued to search the area for Randy’s body until it was found the following afternoon at a depth of 35 feet.
They were about 500 yards from shore and sitting side-by-side on the same seat when the canoe suddenly capsized in 6 feet (2 meters) of water. They tried but were unable to right the canoe and began screaming for help. They knew a sandbar was several meters away and that the water there was only 3 feet (1 meter) deep so they began swimming toward it. Her boyfriend led the way and encouraged Amy to keep swimming, but when he reached the sandbar and turned around, she was gone. Her body was recovered in 6 feet (1 meter) of water the following morning by an underwater search and recovery team from nearby Gravenhurst.
An indication of how severely debilitating even a partial immersion in 35F (2C) water can be, is the fact that Amy’s boyfriend lost control of his legs and collapsed repeatedly as he made his way towards shore along the sandbar in hip-deep water. Toward the end, he reportedly also lost his vision and had to follow the shouted instructions of people on shore who told him which way to go.
Even though it was mid-Winter in Idaho, Payne wasn’t particularly concerned about getting out on the water without thermal protection. In 15 years of paddling, he had never experienced an accidental capsize. Besides, he reasoned, he wasn’t “going kayaking”, this was going to be nothing more than a little test. In a safety article that he wrote for Sea Kayaker magazine (December 2010), Payne stated: “The idea of my ending up in the water of a sheltered marina was so remote that I had given it absolutely no thought.”
When he arrived at the marina, a sheet of ice extended out from the shoreline, but wooden docks extended even further out and provided him with fairly easy access to the ice-cold water. The docks were about two feet above the water; a little bit tricky, but Payne was able to carefully lower himself into his new boat without difficulty.
It was immediately obvious that his new boat wasn’t quite as stable as the old folding kayak that he was used to, and he rocked it back and forth to get a feel for the difference. Everything seemed OK, so he leaned over a little bit more, as he had done hundreds of times with no problem in his other kayak, but instead of resisting his movement, this new boat promptly capsized, spilling Payne directly into the water.
The sudden shock of immersion stunned him, but he was able to resist gasping while under water because the combination of his clothing and snug-fitting PFD briefly delayed the freezing water contacting his skin. He tried the quickest and most sensible route to safety – getting back on the dock - but that didn’t work because it was too high and the weight of his soaking-wet clothes made it impossible to pull himself up and out of the water. He screamed repeatedly for help, but no one answered. It was a cold, grey, windy day at the marina, and no one saw him capsize or witnessed him struggling to get back on the dock.
Payne felt like he didn’t have much time left, so he began desperately swimming for an ice-free section of seawall that lay 30 yards away. Because of the intense cold and the difficulty he had controlling his breathing, the best he could manage was a slow and very inefficient dog-paddle, which kept his body nearly vertical in the water and reduced his forward speed to about 1 foot every two seconds. At that pace, it took roughly 3 minutes for him to reach the breakwater. “Panting and convulsing with cold”, he was able to claw his way up the rocks to safety.
Experience and familiarity often breed complacency, a state of mind that makes it very easy to rationalize a near-lethal decision to paddle unprotected on freezing water. Nobody ever plans on capsizing.
McHaffie was able to make it to back to shore, but when he turned around, he saw Williams about 40 yards away, floating face down in the water. He then found someone with a cell phone who called 911. Firefighters made it to the scene about 3 minutes after getting the call.
When they arrived and spotted Williams, they bravely put on life jackets, waded out through the 45 to 50 degree water without the protection of wetsuits or drysuits, and pulled him back to shore. By that point, he had no pulse, wasn’t breathing, and had been in the water for about ten minutes. The firefighters began CPR, and transported Williams to CoxSouth Hospital by ambulance, where efforts to revive him continued without success.