Durham News

Water can be inviting, but in cold temperatures it can be deadly

Rufus Ward Jr. exits the water after checking the water temperature Saturday. The talk drew about 50 outdoor enthusiasts from around eastern North Carolina.
Rufus Ward Jr. exits the water after checking the water temperature Saturday. The talk drew about 50 outdoor enthusiasts from around eastern North Carolina. jhknight@newsobserver.com

Falls Lake lay calm under a clear blue sky Saturday, with the air warm enough to be outside in short sleeves, and a couple of sailboats in the distance making the most of a sudden taste of spring.

An inviting scene, but it’s a deadly one if you were to fall in. The air may have been warm, but the water was still cold – and cold water, said Moulton Avery, has “a terribly lethal power.”

Avery, founder of the National Center for Cold Water Safety in Spotsylvania, Va., spent Saturday afternoon talking about that power at the Rolling View Recreation Area overlooking Falls Lake.

“I learned a lot,” said Marvin Holcomb from Goldsboro, who waded into the lake ankle-deep after hearing Avery and found the sensation “absolutely numbing.”

The Carolina Kayak Club of Raleigh sponsored Avery’s talk, which drew about 50 outdoor enthusiasts from around Eastern North Carolina.

“It’s a message that needs to get out there,” said Camille Warren, a former club president.

‘Race against time’

Over about 2-1/2 hours, Avery described what happens to a human body when it’s immersed in cold water, say below 60 degrees.

“My job is to scare the crap out of you,” he said.

“You go into cold water, you’re in a race against time,” said Avery, 65, a physiologist and former director of the Carolina Wilderness Institute.

The instant you fall into the water, your body goes into “cold shock” – short of being struck by lightning or hit by a bus, “one of the most profound stimuli a body can encounter,” he said.

Breathing is uncontrollable, and, despite hyperventilating due to involuntary gasping, “you feel like you’re suffocating.” Effective action is difficult because thinking becomes confused. Blood vessels contract, which can lead to heart attack – and even with a healthy heart, the chance of drowning is “pretty good.”

Once shocked, the time it takes to become incapacitated and helpless in the water varies according to body size, fat, whether water is still or rough, and several other factors. Hands get numb, and body temperature falls toward hypothermia.

Conventional wisdom, such as the notion that you’re safe if the air and water temperatures add up to more than 120, and conventional “survival charts” are “based on some theoretical models and some Nazi experiments … of no use for recreational paddlers.”

‘Takes your breath away’

Kayak Club member Deb Copeland of Wake Forest knows firsthand what it’s like to find yourself suddenly in cold water.

Three years ago, she was a relatively new club member when her kayak got lodged against a fallen tree in the Neuse River one October day. The current started to push the kayak under, and the others in her group got her out as it filled with water.

The October water wasn’t as cold as it is this time of year, but it was still a shock.

“It basically takes your breath away, and it also puts panic in you,” she said in an interview last week. “So it’s kind of two things: It’s the temperature, and the panic and realization of the situation that you’re in.”

Copeland hooked onto someone else’s kayak and floated downstream until they came to a place where they could get to shore. Copeland had a dry bag with a change of clothes, and the other kayakers quickly had her strip off everything and put on dry clothes.

“It was critical, because not long after I got back into the boat, it became very cloudy, very windy; and even though I wasn’t in the water anymore, I would have been at great risk for hypothermia,” she said. “They saved my life that day; they absolutely did.”

Warm days, cold water

Now is the most dangerous time of the year for boaters who don’t know the risks of cold water, Avery said, because warm, clear days prompt people out onto the water without realizing how cold it is and what that can mean for survival.

For many of those on hand Saturday, the talk was “preaching to the choir,” said Russ Scheve of Durham, an instructor with the Carolina Canoe Club. But he learned a lot of facts to pass on to his students, he said.

“The challenge is educating the public, or nonpaddlers,” said Larry Ausley of Apex, also a paddling instructor. Looking out over the lake, he said, “This is a very seductive environment that doesn’t look dangerous.”

Holcomb, who had tested the water ankle deep, said his next stop would be to buy some cold-water gear.

“I’m an ex-Marine,” he said. “They never talked to us about this. I learned more today than I did in the four years I was in the Marine Corps.”

Staff writer Richard Stradling contributed to this report.