Winter can be a blissful time to be at sea. With the low sun sparkling off the water, deserted cruising grounds and short hops to pubs with roaring fireplaces, there’s every reason to stay afloat.
The weather windows are smaller and the challenges bigger, but with the right kit and a boat that’s prepped for the off, there are many glorious sails to be had. If you’re sailing over the winter months you might have to deal with some colder weather. The most important thing is to stay dry. Once you get wet, you’ll probably stay wet and with the (hopefully) perfect sailing wind, you’ll start to feel chilled and not in a good way. Saltwater is incredibly hard to dry because of the salt crystals.
Believe it or not, our body is much better suited to the fight against hypothermia than the fight against overheating. In doing so, ladies have an advantage because a thicker layer of subcutaneous adipose tissue provides better protection. The mechanisms handled by our biochemical computer, our body, are much more effective at exposure to cold than at exposure to elevated ambient temperatures.
For starters, the body responds to the cold by squeezing blood vessels. The body knows that the blood is warm, that heating the skin with warm blood in the cold is a waste, and that the blood is needed elsewhere. The fingers become pale, hard, wooden, stiff. It is not possible to make fine movements with such fingers, such as those you use when tuning an instrument, perhaps a navigation instrument. And a cell phone is hard to use, isn’t it?
In winter, on the waves, during sailing in the cold, always and without exception tie your mobile phones with the provided straps so that they are at your fingertips when you need them most. That is why there are those small bars on mobile phones under which the tape is passed.
If you’re sailing because you love it, your fashion sense won’t matter… do whatever you need to do stay dry. Waterproof clothing and shoes are great if you don’t have proper wet weather sailing gear because you can layer warm clothes underneath them too.
Layers are perfect for changeable weather. If you’re doing a watch and you don’t want to disturb the other crewmembers who are resting, you can ensure you’ll be comfortable for the duration of your shift by having several options. Breathable clothes are also great, especially sports clothing, because they wick sweat away from your body. Even if you fall in the cold water do not take your clothes off. More layers of clothing retain more air, which increases buoyancy. Warmer water is retained between the body and the layers of clothing, the water that the body heats with its heat, so the layer of clothing has a protective role, the so-called wet suit, which is well known to divers and surfers. Don’t think it has to be some strong wind. Even a light breeze over the cold sea will dramatically increase the cooling rate. Set the example for your fellow sailors by wearing a personal flotation device. This isn’t about whether you can swim. It’s about the devastating physiological changes brought on almost instantly by immersion in water this cold.
Find a personal flotation device or life jacket that’s comfortable and wear it proudly. Take care that the sea is cold in winter and that in that cold there is hardly any salvation for those who fall off the boat. At a sea temperature of 10 degrees, fainting will occur in a maximum of 60 minutes, and at a temperature of about zero degrees in a maximum of 15 minutes. For those who do not wear life jackets, fainting at sea always means sinking and most often death.
A person can even be an excellent swimmer, in excellent physical condition, but this cannot save his head in the cold sea. The vest can. Namely, unlike ordinary lifebuoys, which today, with the name of the ship and the home port written on, mainly serve as decoration, life jackets allow even an unconscious person to maintain a semi-oblique float position, with his head always above the sea.
Thick waterproof, thermal gloves are good for passages but can be tricky if you’re fiddling with knots and adjusting sheets.
Dry hands are warmer than wet hands, so try to keep your lines dry. If you prefer fingerless gloves for dexterity, wear a pair of rubber gloves underneath – dinghy sailors swear by them!
Up to 70% of body heat is lost through the head, so a good sailing hat is essential. Buffs are good too and can be worn as neck-warmers or balaclavas.
Don’t forget your shades. When the sun’s lower in the sky, a good pair of sailing sunglasses is essential to stop you from having to squint to see the channel mark.
Keep out of the breeze by staying behind the dodgers and utilising any covers that you have. If you’re on watch, then getting up every five to seven minutes to have a good look around or staying active by tweaking or raising sails and safely walking around the deck will help to keep you warm.
Remember to take any cockpit cushions inside to keep them dry too. Soggy salty cushions will take a very long time to dry and aren’t fun or comfortable to sit on. If there isn’t any wind, you could even use a small umbrella to protect yourself and whatever electronic device you’re using during a rain shower!
Warm drinks or soup are also fantastic for keeping you warm during a cold sail. You can prepare something nice and hot and store it in a thermos flask, which you can grab whilst underway.
Condensation is inevitable on a boat in winter. Moisture in warm air settles and condenses onto cold surfaces, which can allow mould to grow.
In a non-heated boat, opening vents and windows will keep an ambient moisture level equal to the exterior. If you run a heating system, you’ll need to open windows and vents so moisture can escape.
Another option is a dehumidifier. A basic chemical desiccant will work well for a limited period. On a boat, an electric desiccant dehumidifier is the one to go for if you have power, as this will work even in a cold boat, but limit the ventilation.
The normal condenser-type will only work if the ambient temperature is reasonably high.
Prepare yourself for the worst-case scenario
The first answer or the initial response lasts up to 3 minutes. The shock the body experiences due to sudden exposure to cold and cooling of the skin includes reflex and dangerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and respiration, with the risk of drowning being very pronounced. The number of heartbeats per minute and blood pressure jumps sharply, and the hormone adrenaline is secreted more and more, which can cause a heart attack and consequent drowning. The frequency and depth of breathing increase many times over, which leads to complex disorders of our biochemical computer and life-threatening.
The second is the short-term response, lasting up to 30 minutes. Don’t swim! Swimming is muscle work, which increases heat loss by 50 percent and reduces the chances of survival by the same amount. Muscles, nerves and joints are affected at this stage of the struggle for life. The shipwreck feels a loss of coordination of movement, followed by real paralysis. Even the strongest swimmers who survive this phase have only a 50 percent chance of reaching the shore alive.
The third or long-lasting response to the cold sea occurs after 30 minutes and lasts up to several hours after falling into the cold sea. The body loses heat rapidly because the heat capacity of water is 25 times greater than the heat capacity of air. This is a phase of the patient, painstaking and persistent struggle for life, and both physiological and psychological moments are manifested in it.
There is a fourth response of the body, the late answer. It occurs at a time when the shipwreck may have already been pulled from the sea, but it is not yet out of danger. In cases of mild to moderate hypothermia, it is good to protect shipwrecked people from the wind, take off their wet clothes and warm them with dry clothes, a warm drink and give them a small meal with fast calories, calories that quickly become heat energy.
For people who find themselves in the sea in winter for any reason, it is recommended to take the so-called HELP position. HELP stands for Heat Escape Lessening Position, which is very well known to all seafarers.
Useful instructions on how to behave in the event of an accidental fall into the sea, even when the sea is not uncomfortably cold or too cold at first touch, can be found in many seafarers’ manuals. The HELP position can be taken by a person who is alone in the sea when the legs are bent at the knee and are drawn to the body. Either way, that position is almost impossible to maintain for long periods if you’re not wearing a life jacket.
In two, three or in a group, the HELP position is taken so that the persons embrace like dancers in a circle. It will allow the sea temperature between them to be perhaps half a degree higher, but this small difference may represent the difference between consciousness and unconsciousness, which at sea represents the difference between life and death.
Psychological stability in such a terrible and extremely uncertain situation is very important, so it should be thought about in advance. There will most likely be someone in the group who will take on the role of a leader, who will encourage everyone else and make decisions. We overcome the cold with knowledge!
If you keep warm and have a great day’s sailing I guarantee you’ll have that warm fuzzy feeling at the end of the day!