Are you ready for Spring Fishing?
Written by Greg Houtteman   
Thursday, 02 April 2009 18:48

I’m not talking about whether or not your tackle is cleaned and properly organized, your rods are spooled up with fresh line, or that your boat is shiny and clean.

Are you ready for spring fishing from a safety standpoint.  We all watch Deadliest Catch and say those guys are crazy, nuts, and we are all awaiting the next disaster to strike.  Isn’t that what really keeps us watching?  When is the last time you called yourself nuts for spring fishing on the Great Lakes?

Spring fishing is a huge part of what we do as anglers on the Great Lakes; we can’t wait to break out of the winter doldrums by getting out on the big water and chasing our favorite fare.  How many of us equate this spring fever to fishing the Bering Sea?  While we may not get 50 foot rogue waves I contend the most “deadly” part of the Deadliest Catch is water temperature, they are most worried about going into the water and so should we be.

Fishing during April and May in many parts of the Great Lakes means that we are fishing in water that is in the high 30s to low 40s.  This is a very dangerous and potentially deadly time of year, especially if something goes wrong and we end up in the water.  I’m sure that not many of us are carrying cold water survival suits so it is important to know what we are facing and take every step to lessen our risk.

The survival statistics are not very promising if you end up in the cold water at this time of year.  

Exhaustion or Unconsciousness
Expected Survival Time
70 – 80 degrees F
3 – 12 hours3 hours  - indefinitely
60 – 70 degrees F2 - 7 hours2 – 40 hours
50 – 60 degrees F1 - 2 hours1 – 6 hours
40 – 50 degrees F30 – 60 minutes1 – 3 hours
32 – 40 degrees F15 – 30 minutes30 – 90 minutes
< 32 degrees F
under 15 minutesunder 15 to 45 minutes

According to the United States Search and Rescue Task Force (USSARTF),  “many of the fatal boating accidents occur in the ‘out-of-season’ months when the water is cold.”  

What should we expect if we or someone we know ends up in the cold water?

“The first hazards to contend with are panic and shock.  The initial shock can place severe strain on the body, producing instant cardiac arrest” adds the USSARTF.  “Survivors of cold water accidents have reported the breath driven from them on first impact with the water … total disorientation may occur after cold water immersion.  Persons have reported ‘thrashing helplessly in the water’ for thirty seconds or more until they were able to get their bearings.”

“Immersion in cold water can quickly numb the extremities to the point of uselessness.  Cold hands cannot fasten the straps of a lifejacket, grasp a thrown rescue line, or hold onto an over-turned boat.   Within minutes, severe pain clouds rational thought.  And, finally, hypothermia (exposure) sets in, and without rescue and proper first aid treatment, unconsciousness and death. “

Body Temperature
Shivering and sensation of cold
Amnesia or loss of mental faculties

As with most critical situations, like cold water immersion, it is very important not to panic.  The first goal should be fairly obvious, get out of the water as soon as possible.

Call Mayday

This is the vessel <name > at location <GPS coordinate - if possible (other landmarks or information you can give> <state the nature of the emergency> and <status/condition and number of your crew - if applicable>

Listen if possible to instructions from the Coast Guard - the CG will hear you if your radio is working as they have very tall towers so no matter where you are they’re listening.  The Coast Guard records transmissions so even if you only have one opportunity to get the call out chances are good they got it.  The Coast Guard will worry about getting the information to the appropriate parties - so make sure you get the location information and identification out.

I know it sounds goofy, but sit and practice doing it.  Make a dry run, make a few dry runs, you don't need to make the call but sit at the helm with the mic in your hand - radio off - reading any instruments you have to give locations.  Stop by your local Coast Guard unit and talk to someone there who can give you tips and tricks to making it happen.

Regardless of the situation make sure to put your PFDs on if you’re not already wearing them.   All emergencies are situational but a likely situation is a crew member going into the water, a simple slip and fall can be potentially deadly in the spring.  If you have a member of your crew go overboard make sure to immediately throw anything that will float into the water, the throw ring, a PFD, a cooler, or whatever you can get your hands on .

No matter how quickly you shutdown the motors the boat will likely still be moving away from the victim.  Someone must keep their eyes on the victim at all times and never take them off.  Cut all your fishing lines, unfortunately people have been known to try to bring their tackle in.  Maneuver the boat in a safe approach to the victim, be careful with your props, and get them out of the water, depending on the time they have been in the water they may not be able to hold a line so be prepared to grapple them in some way; use a boat hook, tie a loop in a rope and lasso them, or grab them however you can.  Under no circumstances jump in the water to try to retrieve them there are too many risks associated with entering the cold water.

Keep in mind that the victim may not be able to help you get them out of the water.  If you can, hoist them in through a tuna door or over the gunwale, if you have an outboard engine you can use the tilt function to help lift them.  If you can’t get them into the boat try to minimize the amount of their body that is in the water, tie them partially submerged to a cleat, whatever you can do to minimize their exposure.
If the emergency involves a sinking situation, stay with the boat as long as you can. Some boats have floatation and won’t fully sink so use the boat as a safe haven trying to stay out of the water as much as possible but stay with the boat.  If the boat has capsized take refuge on the hull of the boat if at all possible.

Be Prepared

Make sure your bilge pumps work, don’t think they work or hope they work, test them.  Fill the bilge up with water using a hose and make sure the automatic switch kicks in and the pump evacuates the water, make sure the manual bilge switch, if you have one, kicks on the pump.  If you don’t have a boat that has a bilge or bilge pumps it’s a good idea to have a pump with wires and alligator clips that can be hooked to the battery and used to bail out your boat in an emergency situation.

Test your radio, make a radio check call on channel 9, make sure you can be heard and can hear others.  Do not proceed unless you know for certain that your radio works, cell phones may or may not work, you have all experienced spotty reception on the water.  The radio is your lifeline to help.

Check your PFDs and make sure you know where they are, if you have inflatable PFDs make sure the air cartridge is still fresh.

Check your flares and make sure they haven’t expired.  If they have expired get new ones, but don’t throw out the old ones, keep them for backups in case you use all the fresh ones, the old ones may still work and it’s worth the gamble to keep them just in case.

Ditch bag.  You got one?  Get a floatable waterproof bag and put in a handheld marine VHF radio, check the batteries, and have extra batteries, flares, handheld GPS, whistle, and other items that might add to your safety.

When you go out on a trip make sure someone knows where you went and when you can be expected to return.

Go take a CPR and basic first aid course.  It’s a couple of hours and could make the difference in someone’s life.  Check with your local Red Cross, American Heart Association, or touch base with your local fire department and ask them where to go.

USSARTF Cold Water First Aid Guidelines

Treatment for hypothermia depends on the condition of the person.  Mild hypothermia victims who show only symptoms of shivering and are capable of rational conversation may only require removal of wet clothes and replacement with dry clothes or blankets.

In more severe cases where the victim is semi-conscious, immediate steps must be taken to begin the rewarming process.  

  • Get the person out of the water and into a warm environment.  Remove the clothing only if it can be done with a minimum of movement of the victim's body.  Do not massage the extremities.
  • Lay the semi-conscious person face up, with the head slightly lowered, unless vomiting occurs.  The head down position allows more blood to flow to the brain.
  • If advanced rescue equipment is available it can be administered by those trained in its use.  Warm humidified oxygen should be administered by face mask.
  • Immediately attempt to rewarm the victim’s body core.  If available, place the person in a bath of hot water at a temperature of 105 to 110 degrees.  It is important that the victim's arms and legs be kept out of the water to prevent "after-drop".  After-drop occurs when the cold blood from the limbs is forced back into the body resulting in further lowering of the core temperature.  After-drop can be fatal.
  • If a tub is not available, apply hot, wet towels or blankets to the victim's head, neck, chest, groin, and abdomen.   Do not warm the arms or legs.
  • If nothing else is available, a rescuer may use their own body heat to warm a hypothermia victim.

Never give alcohol to a hypothermia victim.

In the end the more prepared we are on shore the better our chances are on the water should something go terribly wrong.  There are folks on Educated Angler that can tell you from firsthand experience how fast something can go wrong and how close they were to not making it home.   Now the wife bringing your young sons underwear to the hospital for you – well that’s just a bonus!

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