Always Wear You PFD (Lifejacket) Jim Payne’s Desperate Swim in Freezing Water February 10th, 2012 - Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho
In preparation for a trip down Chile’s Bio Bio River, Jim Payne purchased a new folding kayak. When it arrived, he decided to take it for a brief, 10 minute test in a calm, familiar, protected location close to shore: the local marina on Lake Pend Oreille.
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 2012), 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. To his surprise, that didn’t work because the dock 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.
There are many lessons to be learned from this incident:
Lesson 1: Had the water temperature been a cool 75F, this would have been an unremarkable and innocuous little outing. The capsize would have been a non-event, and Jim would have learned – the easy way – that his new boat had less secondary stability than his old one. Instead, a tiny mistake in balance instantly morphed into desperate situation that came within a whisker of costing Jim his life.
Lesson 2: In addition to the very dangerous loss of breathing control, Jim experienced a profound reduction in mental function, particularly his ability to think clearly and to choose and follow a logical course of action. It began the moment he capsized, and it continued to impair his ability to function after he reached shore. This is a very common and well documented reaction to highly stressful or life-threatening situations, yet it is almost never mentioned in relation to cold water safety - other than to give people ineffective advice like “Don’t Panic!”
Lesson 3: At 72, Jim also faced the very real possibility of suffering a heart attack or stroke – not when he finally reached shore, but the moment he hit the water. This is because the constriction of surface blood vessels in response to sudden cooling causes an instantaneous and massive increase in blood pressure and heart rate.
Lesson 4: The greatest danger in a cold water immersion is that you will drown, and there is no question that Jim's decision to wear his PFD saved his life. Moments after he capsized and tried to get back up on the dock, Jim was afraid that his body temperature was dropping and that he might lose consciousness within a matter of minutes. The immediate threat to his life, however, wasn’t loss of consciousness or hypothermia, it was inhaling water and drowning due to his total loss of breathing control.
Lesson 5: If you value your life, never break the golden rules of cold water safety: Always wear your PFD, and dress for the water temperature – no exceptions. It doesn’t matter whether you’re undertaking a difficult and remote 10 mile crossing or playing around on Little Duck Pond, cold water becomes a threat the moment you’re on the water. Cold water doesn’t just prey on unsuspecting newbies. It also lurks right offshore, patiently waiting for those with plenty of experience who let their guard down or don't take it seriously.
In his article, Jim provides us with a ringside seat to the silk-smooth process by which so many otherwise sensible people rationalize a decision to paddle on very cold water without thermal protection:
“I told myself—I was not going kayaking. I was just going to make a quick ten-minute trial.” “I wasn’t going to leave the shelter of the boat basin. I was merely launching a boat in my own back yard (a familiar nearby marina) as I had launched hundreds of times before.”
Randy Morgart expressed the same view when writing about his near-death experience on the Mississippi River: Cold and Alone on an Icy River “It’s easy to dismiss these [safety] concerns because we have no intention of swimming.”
Lesson 6: Dressing for the water temperature means a lot more than simply “wearing a wetsuit or drysuit”. It means wearing enough thermal protection to keep yourself warm should you wind up in the water for an extended period of time. It means wearing a wetsuit that is thick enough to protect you and snug enough to prevent water from flushing in and out of the wetsuit – even in rough conditions. When wearing a drysuit, it means wearing enough clothing underneath it to protect you from the cold. For more information, see our Gear Guide under the Thermal Protection tab.
As water temperature falls, it also means wearing gear that protects your head, neck, hands and feet. The only way to find out whether your gear meets this very practical standard is to get in the water and swim-test it. If you’re unwilling to swim-test, you really should avoid paddling on cold water.
For someone whose breathing is out of control and who's also suffering the excruciating pain of sudden immersion in 32F (0C) water, 90 feet is a marathon swimming distance. Jim’s upright, dog-paddling stroke is characteristic of swimming failure, and there is no doubt that without the support of his PFD, he would have drowned before he was able to reach shore.
Lesson 7: Jim was a very experienced kayaker, but he let his guard down. We're all capable of making a similar mistake, because rather than making us more alert, 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, and every kayaker should take Jim's experience to heart.
Major Contributing Factors
Not Dressed For Water Temperature
Unable To Recover From Capsize
Unable to Call For Help
Being Complacent / Overconfident