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23 Dec 2020

Surviving in Cold Water

Swimming & Lifesaving
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Even though people often assume that the waters in and around Australia are warm, there are many places where the water is cold for a large portion of the year. The extreme effects of cold water on the body and its ability to function means there is an increased risk of drowning.

Whilst swimming in winter is uncommon, other aquatic activities like boating and fishing are popular year round. Drowning is still a risk, even when victims had no intention to go in the water. Lifejackets increase the chance of survival when immersed in cold water. Lifejackets keep people afloat and help them retain heat until rescued.

Accidental falls into water are, surprisingly, one of the leading causes for drowning deaths. Slippery banks, poor weather conditions and alcohol are all factors which can contribute to falls into water.

Alcohol increases your chance of getting hypothermia. In cold situations, the body will attempt to draw blood away from the limbs and to the vital organs to prevent heat loss. Alcohol, however, prevents this and therefore increases the chance of hypothermia

There are three phases of the body’s response to cold water immersion

Phase 1

  • Initial immersion and cold shock response

  • Occurs within the first 1 to 4 minutes

  • Increase in metabolism

  • Rapid skin cooling initiates immediate gasp response, inability to hold breath and hyperventilation

Phase 2

  • Short term immersion and loss of performance

  • Significant cooling of peripheral tissues, especially in the extremities, continues with most of the effects occurring over the first 30 minutes

Phase 3

  • Long term immersion and the onset of hypothermia

  • Continuous heat loss from the body eventually decreases core temperature

  • Hypothermia usually only becomes a contributor to death if immersion lasts for more than 30 minutes


The key to cold water survival is to conserve body heat. If you find yourself unexpectedly immersed in cold water, discard only heavy garments. Clothing, particularly protective clothing, will help prevent the loss of body heat. Ordinary clothing can reduce the cooling rate by 50%. It is important to retain head covering because a large proportion of heat is lost via the head.

Stay calm, rapid movement causes faster heat loss. Stay afloat on your back and hold any buoyant object if available. Adopt the ‘Heat Escape Lessening Posture (HELP) technique’ by drawing your knees to your chin, keeping your legs together, pressing both arms against your side and keeping your head out of the water.

Signal for help by raising one arm above the head with an open hand, shout for help and stay calm.


  • The key factor in a rescue is self-preservation. Always ensure safety to yourself and don’t put yourself in danger.

  • Shout for assistance and phone emergency services on 000

  • Talk to them, reassure and signal to assist

  • Try and reach them from the land by lying chest down on the ground, reach out with a solid object such as a branch, post or umbrella

  • Throw a buoyant aid such as a lifejacket or a rescue ring


  • Be prepared – Check the weather report and monitor the conditions of the water before going out

  • Always wear a lifejacket when boating or in a watercraft – Ensure that lifejackets are worn by all people on board, are properly fitted and regularly serviced

  • Never go alone – Always go with someone else and inform others of your destination and when you intend to return, particularly in remote locations

  • Avoid alcohol around water – Alcohol impairs judgement and increases risk-taking behaviour, affects coordination and reaction time, making it difficult to get out of trouble

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