Five Quick Tips on Hypothermia


Published Nov 26, 2015 6:04 PM by The Maritime Executive

By Diego Jacobson

When people think about being stranded at sea, most of them worry about the lack of fresh water. Samuel Taylor Coleridge expressed it well in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” But the reality is that hypothermia is a much bigger threat than the lack of fresh water.

Cold water can lead to unconsciousness or even death in as few as 15 minutes, long before dehydration becomes a threat. That’s because cold water conducts heat away from the body up to 32 times faster than cold air. And that means that the water doesn’t have to be frigid to be deadly as long as it’s colder than you are, your body will lose heat. Given enough time, hypothermia can set in even in relatively warm water.

All of this data can make even the toughest maritime professional a little weak in the knees but with these hypothermia prevention tips you can be better prepared for survival:


When your body enters cold water, it triggers a reflexive gasp. That gasp can be deadly if your head is underwater at the time. You probably won’t be able to stop the gasp, but try to concentrate on not inhaling water when it happens. 


Your second hypothermia prevention tip to remember is to get out of the water as quickly as possible. If you don’t have a lifeboat, concentrate on finding a way to get as much of your body out of the water as you can. Even getting your torso on a piece of floating debris will help you conserve body heat. You may initially feel colder, but don’t be fooled: you’ll lose body heat much more slowly once you’re out of the water. 


While your instincts might try to convince you to swim or tread water, especially as your body cools, that’s one of the worst things you can do, because it causes your body to lose heat even faster. If you’re faced with the decision of whether to swim or wait for rescue, keep in mind that swimming speeds heat loss by 30-50%. It’s not recommended unless you’re certain that you’re within a kilometer of shore.


Once you’re in the water, assume the Heat Escape Lessening Position (HELP). Cross your legs, bring your knees up to your chest, and cross your arms over your chest. The point is to have as much of your body touching as you can. If you’re with other survivors, huddle together in a tight group with as much of your bodies touching as possible. If there are children present, put them in the center of the huddle. Just remember that bodies touching bodies lose heat more slowly than bodies touching water. 


If you have an immersion suit or other PFD, you don’t have to worry about being weighed down by sodden clothing. Instead of removing clothing, fasten anything you can to help regulate your temperature. 

Being stranded in cold water is one of the biggest dangers a mariner can face. Despite the hazards, though, survival is possible – and even likely if you’re properly prepared. It starts with having the right maritime knowledge like hypothermia prevention. From there, it’s up to you to remember your training. If you remember only one thing, everything you can do to conserve body heat takes you one step closer to rescue.

Hypothermia is a major cause of death at sea, resulting in about 800 casualties annually, most of which are reported as drownings.

Diego Jacobson is the CEO of White Glacier.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.