Man dies in cold water close to shore

Lookout! Issue 32, December 2014 – January 2015

A man died after falling into very cold deep water while attempting to board a larger vessel from an inflatable dinghy.

The man was one of five people staying on board a 14 metre vessel, which was being used as the base for the group’s hunting and fishing activities. The vessel was moored in a sheltered cove, 60 to 70 metres offshore.

Three of the group had already gone ashore in one inflatable dinghy when the man took the remaining member of the party ashore in the other. He dropped the person ashore without incident and was seen setting out in the second dinghy on his own, to return to the main vessel.

He dropped the person ashore without incident and was seen setting out in the second dinghy on his own...

As the others were returning to the main vessel in the first dinghy, they saw the second dinghy drifting about 20 metres from the larger vessel and discovered the deceased man floating nearby.

Although the accident was not witnessed, it appeared the man had fallen into the water and was unable to pull himself out onto either the dinghy or the main vessel before he succumbed to the effects of cold-water immersion.

LOOKOUT! Points

  • Because there were no witnesses to the accident, it is not known whether the man fell into the water while attempting to climb from the inflatable dinghy into the main vessel, or whether he ended up in the water after suffering a cardiac event (he had known medical conditions). The initial shock of plunging into cold water could also have triggered a cardiac arrest.
  • Cold water can kill very quickly. The initial shock of entering cold water can cause a large gasp for air, and a massive increase in lung and heart effort. This can result in muscle spasm, drowning or a heart attack.
    • Even without those immediate effects, a person’s extremities quickly become numb and unable to function normally. Fine motor skills disappear, making it difficult to grab or hold on to items. Severe pain interferes with rational thought within minutes, and hypothermia, unconsciousness and death can rapidly follow.
  • No lifejackets were carried on the inflatables, despite the legal requirement to have enough lifejackets of the right size and type for all those on board a vessel under 6 metres. The group did not know the area also had a regional bylaw requiring lifejackets to be worn in vessels under 6 metres.
    • Recreational boaties need to make sure they are aware of the local bylaws for the area they are operating in, and follow them. Lifejackets can increase a person’s ability to survive in cold water, although it is considered unlikely that wearing a lifejacket would have changed the outcome in this situation. The very cold water would have quickly taken effect and is likely to have prevented the man from staying alive long enough to be found and rescued, or make his way to the shore, 60 or 70 metres away.
  • Another factor that could have contributed to this tragedy was the lack of equipment on the main vessel to help climb up from a smaller craft. Steps or a boarding ladder may have enabled the man to pull himself up and out of the water to safety.

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