Cold Water Boating Hazards

After a long, cold… very cold… North Country winter, we’re all looking forward to warmer weather recreational activities. These first warm days of spring often attract boaters and other recreational enthusiasts to the many beautiful lakes, rivers, and streams across Vermont and northern New York.

Particular caution is necessary early in the boating season across the North Country

This week’s rescue of three kayakers from Lake Champlain illustrates the need for proper precaution. Two of the kayaks capsized dumping the boaters into Lake Champlain. Fortunately they were able to be towed to Valcour Island by the third kayaker, and eventually rescued and treated for hypothermia.

The Hazard of Cold Water BoatingThe National Weather Service (NWS) in Burlington, Vermont urges extreme caution when boating, canoeing, or kayaking during the spring, when water temperatures typically remain dangerously cold in the event of a capsize.

Boaters should be aware of the dangers posed by cold water temperatures. On pleasantly warm and dry days in April and May, it is easy to forget that the water temperature is much responds more slowly to seasonal changes and warms much more slowly than the air temperature.

Rivers are often still affected by melting snow runoff from the mountains. Lakes continue to up-well cold water from below until a temperature of 39°F, and then increase in temperature slowly based on amount and days of sunshine, near surface air temperature, and the size of the body of water. On Lake Champlain, climate records indicate that surface water temperatures are typically in the upper 30s in late April, and only rise into the 40s during May.

Cold Water Immersion

Immersion in cold water can quickly become life threatening. If you capsize in water with temperatures in the upper 30s and 40s, hypothermia can occur in a matter of minutes. Since water conducts body heat away up to 26 times faster than air of the same temperature, the cold water rapidly weakens the extremities – making them numb and weakening the ability of muscles to work effectively.

Protect Yourself From Danger When Cold Water Boating

The NWS urges the following safety measures to protect yourself and maximize your enjoyment of area waterways:

  • Consider postponing small craft boating activities until water temperatures become warmer in late spring and summer.

    Cold Water Boating Hazards

    PFD Wear it !

  • If you do choose to boat, canoe, or kayak in April or May, wear a dry suit appropriate for water temperatures in the high 30s and 40s.
  • Wear all recommended protective gear to guard against the cold water in the event of an accident or capsize.
  • Remember, no matter the season, when you are on the water, always wear your life jacket.

Safe boating is no accident!

Take the time to think safety first and plan appropriately for weather and water conditions before heading out on lakes, rivers, and streams.

Further Hypothermia Information: