Wilderness First Aid Course


It had only been a couple of months since I completed a first aid certificate at work. Now faced with a collapsed person who I had to diagnose and treat my mind was blank. Slowly I started to remember the steps of basic casualty management. Assess the scene, use a problem solving approach, and reassure the injured person… Finally I had the wound treated, the bandage in place and the ‘injured’ person comfortable. This role-play was my introduction to the remote area first aid course run by Bruce McNaughton.

In hindsight I should have attended, with the others, the one day Senior First Aid certificate course Bruce conducted the previous weekend. That first role-play had brought home to me just how important it was with first aid to refresh what I had previously learnt.

For two days in late June eleven club members enjoyed Bruce’s mixture of instruction, role-plays, scenarios and first aid games. Gordon Scout Hall provided an excellent ‘wilderness’ venue for the course. A picturesque bushland setting offered a taxing and appropriate practice area for the role-plays, the kitchen supplied the well earned coffee but most importantly the hall provided the right ‘climate’ for the most realistic first aid challenge of the weekend, how to deal with that potential killer, hypothermia.

Hypothermia was not the only potential danger to the kayaker discussed. Bruce covered a wide range of topics from broken bones, head injuries, shock, burns to allergic reactions, bites and wounds. It was not the wide range of potential things that could go wrong that had me starting to question the wisdom of kayaking but the ability of the group to provide graphic examples for each of the injuries. At one point I was beginning to wonder how the club has survived given the ‘bad luck’ of so many of its members.

Short bursts of theory were followed by the chance to practice a new skill through role-plays. Role-plays made more dramatic by goodies from a kit bag of simulated wounds. A car accident saw multiple people injured and in shock, broken bones protruding through the skin, open wounds with life-like blood, snake bites and my favourite: an eye dislocated from its socket. Another incident found us down in the bush behind the scout hall treating a person with a broken leg and open bleeding wounds on the hand. After treating the injuries they needed to be carefully moved back up the hill. Two spare paddles, a tow rope and a Thermarest mat provide all the ingredients you need for a suitable stretcher to do the job.

Sleeping mats, it should be noted, had become a core piece of first aid equipment in these exercises. They are effective as part of a stretcher, something insulated to lay your injured person on (very important on the floor of a scout hall) or a fabulous inflatable splint for immobilising a limb. It is however the humble triangular bandage that produces the best ‘walking wounded’ images. Useful not only as narrow or broad bandage but tied elegantly into one of three different types of sling, the St John, the collar & cuff or the full arm, they make a real first aid ‘fashion’ statement.

While the role-plays provided the opportunity to put theory into practice, Bruce had a couple of other fun ways to test our learning. Modelled on an old party game the group was split into two. One half of the group asked to sit up against the wall each with a sign above their head on which was an ailment you had to deduce though your own series of questions. The other half privy to the ailment had to answer the questions in a helpful manner. Am I breathing? Am I cold? Am I bleeding? The game proved harder than it sounds particularly given all the various symptoms we had been discussing. There was a chance I would die of old age before I managed to guess what was wrong with me.

At the end of the two days there remained two tests to complete, one a formal written paper for our certificate and the other a practical test set by the scout hall.

My answer to the Scout Hall Test was:

…the solution to preventing hypothermia is to select appropriate clothing, equipment and food. Appropriate clothing based upon observation of the group showed that you should dress in layers; Annie for example had about 13 layers – the outer layer a down sleeping bag rated to about -7°C. Heat loss through the extremities also needs to be prevented. Shaan’s woollen beanie stayed firmly pulled down on her head, Dee’s gloves and Lee’s bright red long socks (on day two) all did the trick. Those socks also would double as a useful piece of safety equipment – visible for a very considerable distance. They remain debateable as a fashion accessory. Food is very important – Bruce’s miniature lamingtons worked well. As for the equipment – never go anywhere without a triangular bandage and a Thermarest mat.

Thanks to the group of Annie, Dee, Shaan, Adrian, Claus, Eric, John, Lee, Owen and Roger who all helped make the course fun and an enjoyable social occasion. Bruce did a great job teaching. Not an easy task when your students showed signs normally associated with a body temperature of 34°C.

As for the important question about whether or not the course was worthwhile, I might leave it to Claus. This is the email he sent the day after the course:

“This morning while sitting on the train from Chatswood to Wynyard with my iPad plugged into my ears I still managed to hear a thump, then a call for anyone with first aid. Popped the ear phones out and quickly went to where all the noise was. There was a young man on the carriage floor. What would be the chance of this happening so soon after the course?

Nerves hit the roof but took one (sorry Bruce, not two) big breath and focused on what we learnt. Possibly didn’t get it 100% in the correct order but got him relaxed and comforted (while checking all the bits and pieces) till the train pulled up to next station and was able to transfer him to the rail safety officers.”

Memories of Malta – A special day in the western Mediterranean


Every day in a sea kayak is special, some more so than others. One extra special day that lingers fondly in my memory was back in 2007 when my wife, Geraldine, and I were on a tour of the islands of the western Mediterranean.

The tiny nation of Malta, of around 500,000 inhabitants, was our first port of call. The nation is actually made up of a number of islands. The principal island is Malta itself. To the near north are the islands of Comino and Gozo. All the islands have coastlines studded with amazing geological features of which the Blue Grotto is probably the most famous. A day or so travelling around in the tour bus salivating on these features was enough to set me off making enquiries into the possibility of hiring a sea kayak for a day. The tour company’s local representative helped and came up trumps with the aptly-named outfit, Rugged Coast Adventures, based in Mellieha Bay Ghadira, on the north-eastern corner of Malta.

Clark Weissinger, an American Canoe Association Sea Kayak Instructor owns Rugged Coast Adventures. According to his web site, his kayaking activities extend from short tours through to multi-day expeditions. His fleet of kayaks is made up mostly of Wilderness Systems models – single and doubles, sit-ins and sit-on-tops.

I think I paid about fifty-five Euros (approximately one hundred of our dollars at the time) to hire a kayak for the day. Clark provided me with a near-new plastic Tempest 170, a reasonably good paddle, skirt and PFD. Once he was comfortable about my ability he outlined a route that I might like to take so as to avoid the ferries that make the busy crossing between Malta and Gozo.

I set off in calm waters, verging on indigo-coloured. There were a few fluffy clouds scattered above. The fact that this was my first solo paddle in foreign waters added some spice to the occasion. It was not long out of Mellieha Bay, heading north along the eastern coastline when I came across my first sea cave. It was a beauty – high, broad and deep. However, soon after backing well into the cave I got an enormous shock. Blocking the entrance was the bow of the Hornblower, a local tour boat somewhere around the size of a Sydney ferry. The only thing stopping the boat coming further in to the cave was the height of its aerials. Passengers on board, ignorant of my presence, were taking photos of the cave. Flashes were going off madly. I would have liked to have reciprocated but my camera was stuck in the day hatch and by the time I got it out the moment had passed.

As I continued my paddle along the north-eastern tip of Malta, I discovered some more sea caves. I will long remember the twin caves accessed from the sea via an arch and a lagoon. The photo I captured there remains one of my favourites.

The crossing between Malta and the small island of Comino, a sparsely populated nature reserve, is close to a nautical mile. My course had me heading for some reasonably high limestone cliffs which I could see were studded with sea caves beckoning exploration. I circumnavigated Comino in an anti-clockwise direction ducking in to some of the pretty little bays on the northern side of the island. A couple of islets standing off nearby make Comino’s coastline on the western side very picturesque. The most famous feature there is the Blue Lagoon – a popular destination for day trippers from Malta and Gozo. The magnificent aquamarine of its waters is clearly evident on Google Earth. I probably did the wrong thing by paddling over the floating boom and in to the lagoon however most of the visitors were sunbathing on the shoreline.

By this stage I was starting to feel a bit peckish but the crowded shoreline encouraged me to press on to find another spot to land. At the back of a nearby sea cave I found a sandy beach which made for an ideal lunch stop. While I was enjoying a cuppa and a sandwich a couple of tinnies with tourists aboard poked their bows in to the cave and the flashes started popping. My exit from the cave coincided with the arrival of another tinnie of tourists and I found myself to be the subject of their photos as I re-emerged in to the light of day.

My journey continued back to the south-eastern corner of Comino, I passed more caves and paddled through arches along the way. From here I made the return crossing to Malta and back to my starting point in Mellieha Bay thus completing a round trip of around 25km. A stiff afternoon sea breeze developed in the latter stages of the return journey but it was not strong enough to blow the gloss off what had been a wonderful day.

“Thats it, Finished.”


And so it was, in typical laconic Trueman style, that Stuart signed off his last email upon arriving back in Broome on the 28th of July 2011.

As most reading this will know, Stuart had embarked sixteen months prior on a sea odyssey that would take him around Australia by sea kayak. In completing this massive project he became only the third person to successfully do so, after Paul Caffyn in 1981/82 and Freya Hoffmeister in 2009. Many others have tried and given up. He had no ground crew support, adding to the logistical difficulties, the ‘hassle’ factor of organising supplies and, perhaps most significantly, the morale and motivational assistance that such support can offer.

As William Smyth has previously written in this magazine, this trip entailed negotiating some daunting stretches of coast. The Zuytdorp, Baxter and Bunda cliffs in WA are all in excess of 160km long and require commitment and resilience. Stuart noted that the humid heat up north was in many ways more challenging physically than the cold of the southern stretches.

He has stories now for his kids of crocs and sharks, storms and police ‘assistance’. Moreover he feels as though he came to appreciate the varying moods of the Australian oceans – “It’s like a living thing”, he recently commented.

He did however gratefully receive support from many coast dwellers along the way and kayak clubs around the country. His wife, Sharon, offered him family support to allow him to pursue a dream that only a few are seriously interested in exploring. In doing so, she also demonstrated commitment and resilience. Such challenging family negotiations are either the tedious realities that get in the way of dreams, or are they a central pathway through which we struggle to continue to share, at times, differing life interests?

Stuart is now back home, safe and vaguely sound, and is re-acclimatising to domestic living!

Testing as it was, there were no ‘firsts’ on this trip, no one to beat, no killer feat for some company to attach its logo to. He chose to use a sail, which could affect some staunch kayakers’ views of the trip. For me, however, there seems something even more radiant in this. Primarily this adventure was a non-competitive self-expression and exploration – a lone soul’s strange dance with life.

The passions, problem solving capacities and skills of humans are an evolutionary story of never-ending fascination. Stuart’s oceanic journey has also offered others an opportunity to be inspired, to dream and muse. My four-year-old son, for example, has gained a fascinated Australian geographic experience as he followed Stuart around the country.

“Where’s Stu now, Dad?”


Thanks, Stu.

Swansea to Catherine Hill Bay: a risky business


We’re bobbing a respectful distance from Snake Gully, a narrow channel cut into the rugged cliff face near Cave Beach, as the largest of a set of rollers throws itself against the right hand portal, exploding in a spectacular column of white. Only metres from the jagged rocks on their left, Claudia and David, helmets their only concession to the conditions, inch cautiously into the confused white water. The idiots are actually contemplating going in there!

This is sheer madness. These two are not strangers I met this morning. Firm bonds have grown between us during my year in this club. David teaches, encourages and prods me constantly to achieve on our trips. I spent a week travelling down the Murrumbidgee with Claudia and Peter; played with their children. I don’t want to lose them, hate watching them take this awful risk. Please get out of there, I silently shout at them.

In reply they make their move, paddling forward with purpose. Kayaks swallowed by white water, their shiny helmets sink from view into the mist-shrouded inlet, its further reaches completely obscured from view.

Rising high on the long swells building under them, the other five continue to hold their safe positions near me. Do they share my feelings, I wonder: what if Claudia and David don’t reappear in the next few minutes? Will the most capable among us have to venture after them into that cauldron to give assistance? Although dangerous, the alternative, getting outside help, would take forever and probably arrive too late if one or both of them are smashed against the cliffs in there.

Dread, anger and frustration churn up my insides. I just hope David is familiar with this coast and knows what he’s doing.

After what feels like an age, a shout of “there they are” breaks the tension. What took them so long? With quick strokes and happy faces they join our group as though nothing special had happened. In spite of pent up emotions, I choose not to talk to either about their excursion; I’m just happy to see them back unharmed.

Driving home an hour later, I can’t help looking back at that incident. I feel wronged somehow. How dare they put me through so much worry?

Later, while describing my thoughts to Lek, my wife, she jumps up: “Now you know how I feel each time you go off and do something ‘interesting’. I have to sit, sick with worry, waiting for you to return”.

Come on, that’s different. I don’t do anything really dangerous or foolhardy.

“What about that time in Switzerland; walking across that Glacier on your own? Or one of your “I’ll just have a little look what’s over there”; then you’re gone for ages. How’s that so different?”

Hmm, she’s got a point there. I love exploring and testing my limitations, whether out there or in my mind. The chance to push through the rising fear of a surf landing, a cold mid-winter roll, or the resistance to letting go a long-cherished truth that no longer deserves the title: these help make up the full life each of us deserves. Risk-taking builds character, informs of weaknesses and strengths, of who I am. Without risk, life would resemble a comfortable cage; ultimate safety, but nothing ever happens.

Risk-taking, more than most things I do, illuminates the fact that I don’t live in a vacuum. I’m connected to all who care for me, for whatever reason, including that I’m a member of the human race. Needing help could place the helper/s in danger, a fact never considered by yours truly as my heart skips a beat when a challenge presents itself.

Although admitting that risk-taking, especially the thrill-seeking variety, is often a selfish act, I believe it is also one of our most noble and rewarding attributes. Few worthwhile achievements are attained without at least a degree of risk of failure, ridicule, injury or death. Life is a risky endeavour.

So, what if I had lost my friends that day?

A rule I find hard to accept, and even harder to live by, is: they are not mine to lose. I know them, enjoy their company and help keep them safe. That doesn’t mean control their actions. Big Brother laws be damned, I say. By all means recount a similar experience to highlight a danger, but advise sparingly…. with restraint.

May our shouts of caution be well considered and mostly silent ones.


PS: David did know that the inlet opens out into a quieter pool large enough to turn around in.

Sea Kayak Navigation The Easy Way


Ever wondered what a rhumb line is? Unsure why grid north and magnetic north don’t necessarily point north? Ever heard a lugubrious paddler described as a ‘fathom of misery’ and wondered how tall he was? I may be able to help.

Although I’m new to the club, and pretty new to kayaking, navigation used to be my day job. I joined the RAN as a 16-year-old cadet midshipman and trained as a navigation specialist – a ‘Dagger N’. Among my navigation jobs, I served several times at the RAN Navigation School, and on the staff of the Royal Navy’s Flag Officer Sea Training. The ships I navigated included the training ship HMAS Jervis Bay and the seabed operations ship HMS Challenger. And I was lucky enough to command the frigate HMAS Torrens and the patrol boat HMAS Barbette.

Over the next few issues of the magazine, I’ll describe some navigational tips and techniques that might help to get you safely through your paddling trips. But there’s no substitute for practicing on the water. Keep an eye on the calendar too for some navigation-themed trips and exercises in the near future, I’ll help set up the navigational tasks to keep you busy.

In a kayak, even though we only draw a few centimetres, we can still be surprised by a bombora over a shoal, or an unanticipated tidal stream. We face many of the same problems of navigation as other mariners, but we have few of the tools they take for granted. And kayaking is supposed to be fun, so while we should aim to keep ourselves safe, we also want to minimise the effort and inconvenience.

How accurate does our navigation need to be? That depends.

The pre-GPS deep-draught navigators used to say ‘outward bound, don’t run aground’, meaning accuracy was less critical at the beginning of a voyage, as they headed out onto the boundless ocean. Their secret, and ours, as very shallow-draught navigators, is to manage the size of the pool of errors, to keep from straying inadvertently into danger. So a lot of kayak navigation can be done by eye, by estimating distances and judging bearings relative to our heading.

So a paddle through familiar waters might need no more preparation than a check of the weather forecast and a look at the tide tables, with a plan as simple as keeping the land to port or starboard.

Paddling on waters less travelled requires more effort: we should familiarise ourselves with likely dangers, the expected tidal conditions, and the available pull-out points for rest and refreshment. We’ll want to take a chart with us, with some means of finding our position. But we need to do as much pre-planning as possible, so we can minimise the amount of time spent focused on the chart on our spray deck.

As we run up the scale of navigational difficulty, with multi-day trips in difficult, unknown waters our preparations must increase to match the difficulty, and so too our efforts to find our position when under way.

And don’t forget, if you practice your navigational skills when it’s not critical for your safety, it should become easier to use those skills when you really do need them.

Some days, safe navigation will mean taking along a GPS, especially if we plan to be out of sight of land. Why not? They’re great machines, I wish I’d had one in my warship as convenient to use as my little Garmin. But paddlers made challenging trips before the advent of GPS and we need to be confident enough in our skills to complete our trip if the batteries fail or if the receiver falls over the side.

If you’re new to navigation, there are several good texts for sea kayakers around, and some of them are even readable! And don’t ignore books intended for other mariners. And of course there’s a wealth of information available on the Internet, some of it useful and some of it dodgy.

Anyway, it’s time you stopped reading, and got out there to start navigating. In the next issue of the magazine, I’ll explain why you need to avoid buying a cheap steering compass off ebay from a northern hemisphere retailer, and a little more on the magnetic compass.

Using Marine VHF Radio: a conversation with Marine Rescue, Sydney


From time to time the club finds it desirable to use VHF radios along the NSW coast to communicate with Marine Rescue authorities. This is most commonly for logging on and off trips, or on a few occasions to inform Marine Rescue of exercises that might otherwise be mistaken for kayakers in distress. Just occasionally we have used them in emergencies.

In the last few years a number of us have found it increasingly difficult to use our handheld VHF marine radios, on Channel 16, for communicating with Marine Rescue South Head. This is despite trying many different sites both within and outside the harbour and within apparent line of sight of the radio tower at South Head. The radios had no trouble communicating sea-to-sea between kayakers over kilometres and received boating transmissions in the region very clearly.

The following is a synopsis of some tests and a couple of question-answer sessions with Frank Haviland of Marine Rescue Sydney. Frank is the ‘MRSS / CompassNet Officer’ at Marine Rescue, Terrey Hills and he has provided some clear and useful comments regarding VHF use around Sydney Harbour.


We approached Marine Rescue Sydney to conduct VHF transmission reception tests within a short distance east of South Head and in line of site of the tower that once supported a Marine Rescue VHF station. We used 5W handheld radios for the test and mobile phones for the occasions when the VHF could not establish a communication link. Marine Rescue Sydney at first could not receive our signal and when they did they rated it 1, 1; that is very weak and almost unreadable. The weakness of the signal compares with a rating of 5, 5 which is the best possible. Several years ago, for similar locations and transceivers, we would routinely be given a 5, 5 rating. Marine Rescue Sydney explained that there were a number of reasons for this.

The Middle Harbour station no longer provides a regular VHF service

The installation of a radar station in the South Head tower has required the removal of the station from its original location in the tower to a temporary location in the car park that is partially screened by foliage

There is increasing communication traffic with marine VHF transmitters capable of 25W

Fewer operators are complying with the standard communication procedures

Following these tests Marine Rescue Sydney and I followed through by email and extracts from the correspondence are copied below. I have shortened and edited my questions for clarity, but have left Frank Haviland’s answers intact:


Does Marine Rescue Sydney still take subscriptions from boaters?

Is there a VHF radio station on North Head?

Could you tell us the location of repeater stations along the Sydney coast?


Dear Mr Osman,

Your inquiry to Marine Rescue Headquarters has been referred to me for reply.

Marine Radio Safety Service

Firstly, your 3 year subscription to our Marine Radio Safety Service is still current – expires 1st July 2013.  Your membership will eventually be merged into the new CompassNet system being developed by Marine Rescue.  This was advertised at the October 2010 Boat Show, but is still “work in progress”.  In the meantime, we continue to provide the service and accept applications for one or three year subscriptions.  Inquiries should be made to me direct by email, mail, or telephone.

VHF Coverage

The Marine Rescue Radio Base at Terrey Hills maintains remote radio stations at North Head (old Artillery school), Miranda (Shopping Centre) and Killcare Heights – all operated from Terrey Hills using the VHF Marine Frequencies. We also have repeater stations on North Head (Ch22 Duplex) and at Killcare Heights (Ch21 Duplex) “owned” by the Broken Bay Game Fishing Club and available to us on non-game fishing competition days.

Other Repeater channels in the greater Sydney area used by us include:-

Channel 82 – South of the harbour – Stanwell park, Wollongong;

Channel 81 – Sydney harbour area;

Channel 80 – Newcastle, Lake Macquarie

I can send you a diagram of all this when I go to the base tomorrow night if you wish – unfortunately I have just moved house and haven’t located my own files yet!

Please let me know if I can assist further in any way,


Frank Haviland

MRSS / CompassNet Officer

Marine Rescue Terrey Hills


That is very helpful and a diagram would be most welcome. Also I would appreciate your advice and comments on the following alternative options if direct VHF transmission with Marine Rescue is failing:


Use a mobile phone. Phones can be awkward to use from a kayak in trouble but it is possible particularly if a rescuing or assisting kayak is making the call. It might pay to buy a phone with a large keypad and screen such as are now available for older people. Would the Marine Rescue be OK with receiving mobile phone calls to log a trip on or off, or in emergencies?

Is it possible, permissible and reasonable to use one of the repeater stations by calling on a channel other than Channel 16 that might prove more accessible near shore?

In a serious emergency the ‘Pan Pan’ call for requesting help, or requesting a relayed message to Marine Rescue for help, might be a preferred option for speed rather than attempting a direct VHF call to Marine Rescue. (Author’s note – it’s customary to wait several minutes to hear a response and with no response this could extend to quite a long period.) Would Marine Rescue feel that was a reasonable option, in an emergency, rather than trying to call Marine Rescue direct?


Hello again Peter,

Attached is a diagram of the NSW coast showing the repeater coverage (Author’s note – see Figure 1)

[Editor’s note: we are currently seeking the weblink for this diagram]

Regarding your Options:-

1. We encourage people to carry mobile phones on their boats and we record the mobile numbers as an alternative means of communication.  We stress, however, that they should not be the primary communication.  In the event of an emergency, all vessels listening to a radio frequency can hear the call and offer assistance; with a telephone, only the person called is aware of the problem.  We often have vessels logging on (and off) by phone.  I actually encourage people to ring us at the base before they leave home and get a weather report.

2. The rule is that duplex* channels should only be used if simplex* channels are not available or not providing adequate signals.  That said, we are happy for you to use any means of contacting us available to you.  At Terrey Hills we monitor the repeater stations as well as the normal marine VHF frequencies; it is best to try and call on Ch16 and then try other channels if you get no response.  By doing this, another vessel or radio base guarding Ch16  may hear you even if we can’t.

3. A vessel in an emergency situation should broadcast a “Pan Pan” message.  If the situation is life threatening – broadcast a “Mayday”.  The idea is to attract the attention of everyone in range to ensure the message is picked up and relayed to the person in the best position to render assistance.  The most important piece of information to give is your position.  If we don’t know where you are, we can’t do much to assist and it may take some hours to get a full search under way.  GPS coordinates are the best; bearings to prominent features are very good (clearly indicate if they are Magnetic or True).  Depth of water if you have a depth sounder is very helpful.

If a search is mounted, it will start from your last known position.  This is why we encourage vessels to give us regular position reports – many day fishermen call us every two hours which greatly narrows down the search area and the time spent getting assistance to the right bit of the ocean.

I hope this has been of some assistance to you.  I would certainly appreciate seeing your article before publication if this is practicable.  Good luck with it!


Frank Haviland

MRSS / CompassNet Officer,

Marine Rescue, Terrey Hills

02 9979 7757


Frank’s advice speaks for itself and I would like to thank him and Marine Rescue both for the service they provide as volunteers and for the specific advice and review they have provided on this occasion. It is greatly appreciated. Thanks also to Andrew Eddy, Dee Ratcliffe and Harry Havu for collaborating in VHF transmission tests over the last year and Rob Mercer for his feedback.

*A simplex channel uses a single channel to transmit and receive and a duplex channel uses separate channels to transmit and receive.

Five ways you can die in cold water and how to survive


with permission from Jane Blockley to summarise her excellent 2005 article

A tale from the ex-Vice President of NSW Sea Kayak Club

“It was a lovely summer day on the Tully in North Queensland.  We had been rafting, but for the next rapid, we were going to ‘bum’ it down to where the tour guide would wait for us in the raft.  The guide instructed us all to sit with feet facing downstream with legs around the hips of the person in front and to hold onto their lifejacket.  There were 6 of us. I was at the end of the train of people.  The river carried us through a 2m wide slot over a 1.7m drop.  We landed in foaming deep water on the other side.  When I came up for air I found I couldn’t breathe in or out, I couldn’t cough, I couldn’t speak.  The bank was only 3m away.  Nothing like this had ever happened before.  I know from my diving experience that CPR on the water is pretty hard so I realised I had to get onto the bank before I passed out and hopefully someone would see me there and realise that I was not responding.  I did several strokes of breaststroke and was half way to the bank when all of a sudden I was able to take in a huge gasp of air.  So I turned around and breast stroked back to the raft where the others were.  I now know that this was a brief experience of the reflex closing of the airway that causes silent ‘dry drowning’.”

I am a swimming teacher and part of the training includes understanding the effects of cold water on learning and on survival. Knowing the hazards of cold water and being prepared to deal with them is relevant to kayakers, particularly when we roam to colder coastal waters or venture to inland waters (although for small skinny people, some things are relevant in NSW coastal waters).

Please refer to the three references listed below. The almost exclusive source of this summary is Jane Blockley’s ‘Cold Water – How to increase your chance of survival’. I have paraphrased her article and amended it in a minor way to relate it more to kayaking.

If water is below 26.5°C it will have an adverse effect on survival (Blockley, 2005):

“Predicted survival curves”, which give an expected survival time when immersed in water at various temperatures are of limited use. They are based on rates of body core cooling. However, the early localised effects of hypothermia may be fatal long before body core temperature reaches life-threatening levels. For example, manual dexterity is rapidly and severely degraded in water below 15°C, badly hampering the ability to carry out essential survival tasks.

The hazards of cold water may apply to you whether you are fully immersed or if you have just had to roll unexpectedly and intend to continue paddling along in strong winds.

What is cold water?

What is ‘cold’ is not just about the temperature of the water but also sea state, wind, the individual and factors which affect heat loss. The rate of heat loss is dependent on several factors, including

Difference between the temperature of your body and the water

Body size and amount of insulation from clothing and body fat

Factors increasing heat loss such as movement of cold water against the body due to sea state or physical activity which draws warm blood from the core to the limbs.

Wearing a life jacket (which insulates and reduces the need to tread water or swim)

Lack of protection of parts of the body which lose heat faster than others i.e. the head (50% of heat loss), neck, armpits, chest and groin

Fitness, hydration and energy levels (diet prior to immersion)

According to AMSA 2010, if water is above 21°C, survival depends on fatigue not water temperature; in 15-21°C people can survive up to 12 hours; in 10-15°C up to 6 hours. Port Phillip water temperature varies from 9.5°C to 23°C. Sydney coastal water average temperatures vary from approximately 16°C to 25°C; greater variation is possible after heavy rain, close to rivers or if strong offshore winds or currents cause colder deep water upwelling.

Recent anecdotal evidence suggests that the water at Northbridge baths dropped to 11°C after a week of very heavy rain during July and can increase up to 27°C in summer.  It is 14-16°C in August.  These temperatures are sufficient to make the 5 hazards, listed below, relevant to local kayakers.

What cold water does to YOU

Cold water affects:

Your ability to think clearly – this affects your judgement, ability to make decisions, speed of reaction, concentration and awareness of surroundings.

What you can do physically and how well you can do it: it affects your ability to hold your breath, your manual dexterity and coordination; it reduces grip strength and causes limb numbness, stiffness and pain.

In addition, physical activity in cold water, such as re-entering your boat or swimming, hastens hypothermia and reduces survival time. Treading water or swimming increases the rate of heat loss by approx 40%.

The 5 ways YOU could die in cold water

1. Dry drowning

When: can occur the instant you enter the water or any time after; it may occur in up to 20% of drownings.

What: It is caused by the automatic reflex closing of the airway due to muscle spasm in response to the shock of cold water hitting the back of the nose or throat. As a result, no water can enter the lungs, but neither can air.

Action: Avoid getting water or spray into your nose or throat. If possible take a deep breath, pinch your nose with your fingers to close the nostrils, keep your mouth closed and enter the water gently by rolling in, rather than feet first.

2. Cold shock

When: occurs below 25°C and peaks between 10-15°C; max risk at 1- 5 minutes; lasts for approximately 1 – 3 minutes.

What: At first there is an involuntary in-drawing of breath which is followed by rapid and disordered breathing. There is usually also some disorientation.

Action: If the first involuntary gasp takes place when your face in is the water, then you will get a lungful of water instead of air. If you are in choppy water and your breathing is uncontrolled and you are feeling disorientated then you may have difficulty co-ordinating breathing with gaps between the waves. In order to NOT drown you must concentrate on keeping your face out of the water: turn your back to the waves to avoid inhaling spray and water and try your hardest to control your breathing. Remind yourself it will soon pass.

3. Swimming failure

When: risk increases with time in the water. The colder the water the more your swimming deteriorates. This effect takes hold long before there is significant cooling of the body core, so is not due to core hypothermia. These effects are thought to be due to local cooling of the limb muscles.

What: It becomes more and more difficult to straighten the limbs and to co-ordinate swimming movements. The fingers splay and start to flex. As a result, stroke length is decreased, stroke rate is increased and body position becomes more vertical – so the stroke becomes less and less efficient, and more exhausting. Wearing a PFD does not prevent the onset of swimming failure.

Action: avoid swimming in cold water as much as you can – rescue by swimming should be a last resort only. Different people are affected by swimming failure to varying degrees. Some are affected very rapidly, and others are able to swim for reasonable distances before the effects take hold. In one experiment the significant factor seemed to be upper arm skinfold thickness. The more insulation around the muscles, the warmer and more efficient they remain. According to the Recreational Boating reference below, at a water temperature of 10°C, about 0.85 miles (1.36km) would be the greatest distance that a person of average build is likely to swim before being overcome by hypothermia

4. Hypothermia

When: max cause of death at 30 minutes plus. However long it takes your body core temperature to drop more than 2°C (from 37°C to below 35°C). Predicted survival time for a fully clothed adult male wearing a lifejacket in water at 5°C is approx 1 hour, and 2 hours at 10°C. A thin small person would not last as long. Hypothermia can kill even after the victim has been rescued from the water.

What: As core temperature drops, brain and physical function is impaired. The heart rhythm, cough reflex and blood thickness may be affected. Increased urine production can cause dehydration.

Action: get out of the water as much as possible but avoid unnecessary movement and protect against heat loss then decide what to do given timing of possible rescue by others, the proximity of dry land and how easy it would be to get out of the water, whether you can paddle or not, and whether there are any hazards nearby.

5. Post rescue collapse/‘after drop’

When: risk on or shortly after rescue.

What: there could be circulatory collapse or heart failure. Inappropriate warming may result in cold blood from the extremities entering the core or warm blood being drawn away from the core, resulting in a further drop in core temperature, which may prove fatal.

Action: keep horizontal and still to avoid circulatory collapse or heart failure. Apply insulating blankets and create a warm environment. Go to hospital

How to survive

1. Preparation

Do not put yourself at greater risk by paddling if ill, fatigued, dehydrated, hungry or affected by alcohol/drugs

Avoid immersion in cold water no matter how good your roll is – dry drowning or cold shock may mean you don’t roll up

Know how well your body copes in cold water and be aware of warning signs

Factor the hazards into your risk assessment – given that kayakers are often distant from shore and in remote locations and swimming is not a good option

Understand the 5 hazards so you can work out the best course of action for you if you end up in cold water

Wear a PFD and layers and cover your head which accounts for 50% of body heat loss. Wear bright colours for rescue

2. After immersion

Try to control position of entry to avoid water getting into your nose and throat. Try to control breathing if affected by cold shock. Keep your back to the waves and avoid water inhalation

Stay in/on your boat to keep as much of your body core out of the water as possible. If you can’t, stay as still as possible in the water and protect high heat loss areas by tucking in a ball or huddling in a group. Refer to the HUDDLE position and Heat Exchange Lessening Posture (HELP) to conserve body heat. If you are compelled to tread water or swim to stay afloat due to lack of PFD or sea state, you reduce survival time by 50%.

Think through your options in terms of the hazards and your physical state. Swim as a last resort. When out of the water, if affected by cold, lie down for at least 30 minutes, wrap up and get to hospital.

Notes from personal experience

I always wondered why so many people drown so close to shore – the 5 hazards could explain some of the deaths. Ken has experienced reflex closing of the airway (not long enough to drown, but long enough to wonder why on earth he couldn’t breathe) when rafting in Nth Queensland in the Tully River. I have experienced mild forms of swimming failure in a triathlon in a lake in Canberra in mid-summer and in a billabong near Ayers Rock. I realised it was hard to make my arms go around and that it was because it was cold, so I just tried to swim harder to generate more heat. I didn’t realise I was both generating more heat and losing it more efficiently. Next time I might just head back to shore or test the waters a bit more carefully before I launch myself in. 


Jane Blockley, 2005, ‘Cold Water – How to increase your chance of survival’ http://www.rowingtas.asn.au/uploads/safety_docs/cold-water-survival.pdf : For young rowers – lists different hazards of cold water & how to prepare for them

Recreational Boating in the State of Victoria, date unknown. ‘Immersion Hypothermia ‘http://member.melbpc.org.au/~trinc/hypotherm.html : Good easy reading article for Melbourne water temperatures; shows HUDDLE & HELP positions

AMSA, 2010. ‘National Land Search Operations Manual’, http://natsar.amsa.gov.au/Manuals/Land_Search_Operations_Manual/documents/LSOM_Chapter_9.pdf (More technical but relevant to water temperatures near Sydney)