For 20 years Phil and Ralph had a tradition of opening their cottages together in mid April or when the ice finally went out. Their cottages were close to each other so the routine was to launch the boat, make sure everything was working and that all the necessary gear including safety equipment was on board, and head over the Phil’s place first. They would put the dock in the water, turn the water on, and inspect the cottage and property before lunch.  After lunch they would load up the boat and head to Ralph’s and go through the same sequence.

The ice was out early this year and it was an unusually warm day for April although Ralph pulled out a life jacket to protect from the cold water breeze. They cruised across the bay and around the islands, a route they taken hundreds of times over the years. They knew every shoal, rock, and dead head for 10 square kilometers. The only thing they didn’t know was that a log had fallen over winter and now was partly submerged in their path ahead. As they made the last turn the cottage was in site. Phil was driving the boat and the old motor was just humming at 40 kph. Within 100 meters of the cottage Phil thought he saw something in the water. He tried to swerve to his right but it was too late. The boat hit the log on an angle and as the boat road up the log on the port side the boat capsized.

Phil was thrown into the ice cold water. This wasn’t the first time Phil had fallen in ice cold water. As an experience ice anger he had once broken through and with the aid of spikes and a floater suit it was just a very short encounter. With the edge of the ice a few feet away and the protection of the suit climbing out  was fairly simple and other than an uncomfortable trip back to a warm cottage he survived. But this was different. There was nothing to climb up on and the nearest shore was still 100 meters away. With no survival suit the water met his skin in seconds. The shock of the cold left him gasping and flailing his arms and kicking uncontrollably. When he did finally gain some composure he tried to swim, but the extra weight of his water logged cloths and boots made it difficult to gain any distance.

In minutes Phil was exhausted. His arms became very heavy and he lost strength in his limbs as the natural protect the body triggers to save the vital organs kicks in. When the human body experiences extreme cold all of the blood is used to service vital organs. This natural defense mechanism is typically the undoing of many that fall into cold water. Long before hypothermia sets in the body renders the limbs that can save you inoperable.  Completely exhausted and gasping to fill his lounges with oxygen Phil sank below the surface and his lounges filled with water. Without anyone to save him and perform CPR, Phil drowned.


Ralph was clinging to the capsized boat. The life jacket he had put on to block the cool breeze allowed him to stay on the surface and make his way to the boat. He was shaking uncontrollably and although he wanted desperately to help his friend, he couldn’t move. Hypothermia was setting in when a nearby cottager came and rescued him.

Later they found Phil floating just under the surface in 6 feet of water.  It is a common belief that hypothermia takes most lives after falling into cold water. But the truth is you are more likely to drown. If you are over 50 years old and in average shape you could die of a heart attack if you didn’t drown. If you are lucky enough to stay alive for over 40 minutes to an hour hypothermia will probably take you.


This story is fictional but if you were to change the names and the location hundreds of versions of the same story are real. Simply wearing a life jacket could have saved most of the approximately 300 victims that drowned yearly in Canada.


Depending on the age and physical conditioning a person can survive in cold water for extended periods by just floating with a PDF on. Cold water robs the body's heat 32 times faster than cold air so getting out of the water as fast as possible is a key to survival. But if you simply can't get out try to reduce your activities such as kicking or moving your arms. Excessive movement only robs the body of more heat.


Below is an example of expected survival time just floating in cold water. Age and physical condition create the drastic difference.


Exhaustion or Unconsciousness in

Expected Survival Time

70–80° F (21–27° C)

3–12 hours

3 hours – indefinitely

60–70° F (16–21° C)

2–7 hours

2–40 hours

50–60° F (10–16° C)

1–2 hours

1–6 hours

40–50° F (4–10° C)

30–60 minutes

1–3 hours

32.5–40° F (0–4° C)

15–30 minutes

30–90 minutes

<32° F (<0° C)

Under 15 minutes

Under 15–45 minutes


Falling into cold water only accounts for a small percentage of drowning accidents. In fact most drowning happen between May and October with 38% happening as a result of capsized boats and another 28% from jumping or falling out of a boat. Many a great swimmer has drowned after falling into warm water. The shore is always further away than it looks and the panic from the initial plunge takes much of your energy. Accidents can happen and sometimes in a split second your life can be in jeopardy.


One such incident happened on a perfect warm night on Lake Ontario. Charter boat Captain Ryan Hare had just got his boat back from being repaired. He had a group scheduled for the next day so that evening he decided to take the boat out for a test run just to make sure everything was in order.  He and a friend cruised out of the harbour into open water and everything seemed to be running perfect.


Ryan recounts the trip from there:


As we headed out of the harbour everything seemed to be running perfectly, I had been keeping a close eye on all gauges to monitor how the boat was running after being repaired and visually  everything was running well. As we came off plane, I dropped the kicker motor into the water and my first mate Dan started to set a few rods out.  We figured we would spend an hour out there before dark and have some fun. That all changed with in seconds.  I first noticed the smell of plastic melting; I checked all systems and nothing seemed to be effected.   I decided to lift the engine compartment to inspect what was happening inside and that proved to be a major error. The minute the compartment opened 2”, flames became visible. Although my fire suppression system said there was nothing happening in the engine compartment, there was fire.


Now with the element of oxygen added to the equation the flames spread unlike anything I have ever witnessed. Within seconds there was a wall of flames 2-3ft high separating me from my helm and all my safety equipment t on the main deck. Although we had life jackets on deck and a working CB radio there was no time to get to either.  In less than a minute the fire was well out of control and we had no choice but to abandon the vessel. In a last ditch effort I threw out my planer boards as I jumped overboard so we would have something buoyant to help us float.  Although it was late summer the water was extremely cold and the small chop made it very difficult to swim. That combined with the extra weight of our wet clothing and the adrenalin burn out that we experienced trying to make distance from the now totally engulfed boat we both became extremely fatigued in minutes.

The water was cold and after only 10 minutes I was starting to engulf water.  I saw a boat in the distance heading toward us. I can still remember it like it was yesterday. I was yelling for them to hurry up even though I knew they couldn’t hear me.  For the first time in my life I was in serious trouble. I was drowning.  My muscles had nothing left to give, I could feel my fingers and toes curling up and cramping. The planer boards where just enough to help me stay afloat but I could feel myself slipping slowly under the water.  When help finally arrived and pulled up within 30-40 ft of me they yelled “swim to me!”  The only words I could get out of my mouth where “I’m drowning!”  Realizing the situation was extreme they pitched out a life vest and put the boat in reverse to close the distance.  I was totally dead weight trying


to get into the boat. I had nothing left to offer. My muscles where cramped and burning, my feet and hands totally locked up and non-functional and my lungs and stomach where filling with water.  I hit the deck of the boat and laid there like a fish. All I could do was cough up water as I tried to get my breath back.  It was easily the most eye opening experience I have went through. Everything happened so fast.  I’ve been swimming my whole life, still fairly young and in very good shape, a non-smoker and drinker. None of this was a factor. I thank Matt Santoro of team Hot rods. Without his quick thinking both Dan and myself would have died that night. In fact if he was another 2 min. getting to us we would have drowned.




The complete document of the study by the Red Cross and Dr. Bert Lauwers, Deputy Chief Coroner is available here

Life Jackets are available for just about every water sport or activity. The ridged uncomfortable designs of the past have been replaced with comfortable and functional designs and styles to be worn all the time without hindering any movement or activity.


What to do when you fall in?




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