Cold water can be deadly, and coastal Virginia has a new warning system

By LEE TOLLIVER | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: March 7, 2018

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (Tribune News Service) — It nearly was a perfect morning for announcing a joint effort that could save outdoorsy folks from the dangers of cold water.

Skies were partly cloudy, temperatures were trying to reach 50 and the waters around Craney Island were mirror-calm.

And the water was a teeth-chattering 43 degrees.

Almost the kind of day where the area’s legion of kayakers and paddleboarders would think about spending a little time on the water.

The Paddle Craft Risk Cold Water Danger system unveiled Tuesday morning by Coast Guard Sector Hampton Roads and the National Weather Service Wakefield will warn paddle sports enthusiasts of certain hazards.

It mirrors a system in place in Maine.

“We’ve already had a few days in February that met the criteria for alerts,” said Capt. Rick Wester, sector commander. “We like to think of our heroic responders, the rescue swimmers, but this is something where we prevent a problem in the first place.”

On days – especially spring days – when air temperatures are above 60 degrees, the water is below 60, winds are less than 23 mph and the difference between the air and water temperatures is 15 degrees or higher, the weather service will send out an alert warning paddlers of the potential dangers.

The service will use its social media platforms and forecast updates to send out the alerts using the hashtag #coldwatersafety.

“We decided to piggy-back the Maine program and tailor it to our area,” said Jeff Orrock, meteorologist in charge at Wakefield. “I do a lot of kayaking, and I’m itching to get out there. But there are some things people need to be aware of, and the risks of cold water is the biggest one.”

Wester said when the water is between 40 and 50 degrees, as it was Tuesday, a person not wearing a protective dry suit starts to lose dexterity in 10 to 15 minutes. After an hour, the person will become exhausted or unconscious. Death follows soon after.

A dry suit extends survival time drastically, as demonstrated when five dry-suited members of the Coast Guard decided to jump in. Keeping their heads out of the water and huddling to gain warmth from each other were a couple of the life-saving techniques.

Unfortunately, only seasoned paddlers tend to bother with a dry suit when waters are cold.

“Which makes alerting the general paddling population about cold water that more important,” Wester said.

March through May and the end of October through the end of the year are the most likely time periods when the region experiences conditions that would warrant alerts. But as any longtime resident knows, the weather in these parts does funny things.

“We had high 70s, 80-degree days in February,” Orrock said. “I definitely wanted to get out there.”

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