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Cold-Water Wisdom

BY MARGOT ZALKIND AND MIKE DAVENPORT
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

The dock was covered with glittering ice, traction almost impossible. February in Washington D.C., and our quad wanted to keep rowing. Zealous? Yes. Wise? No. But we understand the pull.

When the weather turns cold, many rowers bid a sad goodbye to their oars, but a rugged few insist on staying on the water, no matter the date or temperature. This is not recommended. Cold water is extremely dangerous. No matter your level of expertise, accidents happen. A boat can flip if you encounter sizable debris, ice, or wakes.

The four phases of sudden immersion in cold water are cold shock, swimming failure, hypothermia, and post-rescue collapse. Any one of them can be fatal.

Cold shock occurs immediately, and cold incapacitation can occur within three to five minutes of a cold-water accident. They are much greater threats to rowers than hypothermia.

Still plan to go out on cold water?

  • Row with a launch. It can pull you out of the water, get you back to the boathouse fast, even fetch your boat. Throwing you a PFD can take time. If you row during the winter months, wear an inflatable life jacket. 
  • If you row without a launch, row with a buddy, who can help you get back into your boat, give you a dry shirt, and help if you become disoriented because of hypothermia.
  • Carry a cell phone in a waterproof container. Call for help before you become so cold that you can’t. If you’re going to call for help, make sure you know where you are, which means identifying specific locations onshore to help rescuers find you. Telling 911 that “you are at the 1,500-meter mark” is not helpful, but knowing a street name or number, a building, or major landmark is.
  • If your cell phone is not operable on the water (and even if it is), carry a sound-making device–a whistle, horn, something loud enough so someone onshore notices. A whistle in the middle of a large river is not enough. 
  • A logbook is helpful, but only if someone is checking it. If you are the last/only person on the water, it may be hours or even days before someone checks the book. Don’t rely on it unless you know that someone will come looking for you if you don’t sign back in.

Margot Zalkind’s love of rowing led her to chair the USRowing safety committee from 1999 to 2020, to serve as a dockmaster at the Head of the Charles many times, and to work with Concept2 to create the annual Learn to Row Day. Books that she has co-written and/or edited about water safety, boathouse management, and other topics are available at RowingCatalog.com.

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