Cold weather boating: Capsize and hypothermia

The risk of falling overboard may be small, but the threat to life of such incidents is extremely serious. They best way for boaters to reduce the risk of an incident is to prepare before they get out on the water.

Incidents attributed to the environment most likely could have been prevented if the vessel operator had not overlooked warning signals such as weather forecasts, not made bad decisions or had the proper boating skills for the environment.

Body temperature can cool down 25 times faster when immersed in cold water, with children and older persons being the most vulnerable to effects of hypothermia.

The ‘Cold weather boating and capsize education’ campaign seeks to raise awareness in the boating community on how to prevent and/or reduce the risks involved in boating in cold weather and boat capsize.

The focus of the campaign is:

  1. To improve the boating public's awareness of the dangers associated with vessel capsize, by:
    • Ensuring vessel are not overloaded, both with passengers or gear
    • Ensuring there are sufficient lifejackets onboard for each person and they are within easy access
    • Ensure all other safety equipment is onboard and in working order
  2. To improve boaters knowledge of the life threatening effects of hypothermia, and techniques to reduce the affects, such as HELP and HUDDLE
  3. Monitor boater compliance to licensing and registration requirements.


Capsize is a major contributor to boating fatalities, so make sure your boat is appropriate for the conditions and has built-in flotation.

Always check the weather before and during boating and never overload - it's illegal and dangerous.

If you do capsize, or get swamped, stay with your craft and your chances of rescue are improved.


The weather is important to your safety. Always check the weather before and during boating. If it looks dicey, don't go out ... and if it starts to turn, head straight for shelter.

A marine radio helps you keep in touch with weather updates.

Learn to understand and read weather patterns. Know the wind and the limits of your craft... and you'll be right.

Hypothermia: Cold water kills

Boaters have a greater exposure to the elements than most and boating in the cooler weather means a higher risk of developing hypothermia from wind-chill, capsize and damp and wet clothes.

Hypothermia is the effect of heat loss from the body.

Immersion in cold water causes the body to lose heat up to 25 times faster than normal and the shock of sudden immersion in cold water can be a serious threat to survivors of accidents, especially people who are older, unfit or under stress from falling overboard or abandoning ship.

Photographs of the HUDDLE and HELP positions


Take precautions, always remember:

  • The best way to avoid getting hypothermia is not to put yourself in the situation where you have an increased risk of capsize or swamping. That means checking the weather before you go, and throughout the voyage. If in doubt don't go out
  • To wear warm thermal clothing, including a beanie and add wet weather gear over your warm clothes to provide wind proofing
  • Children and poor swimmers should wear a lifejacket at all times and this goes for everyone if conditions get rough. Wear your lifejacket. This will keep you afloat if you are forced into the water
  • Fit buoyancy to your boat to keep it afloat when capsized. Remain with your craft - this will increase your chances of being located quickly after a capsize or swamping
  • If you are forced into the water, resist the temptation to swim. Swimming increases the amount of body heat loss. It is best to adopt the Heat Escape Lessening Posture (HELP) or Huddle position
  • Boaters should be wary of using gumboots and waders as these make it difficult to swim should you fall into the water
  • Alcohol increases the body's heat loss by increasing the flow of blood to the surface areas of the body where it is quickly dissipated
  • Stay under your designated alcohol limit
  • For recreational vessel operators over 18 years the limit is under .05
  • For commercial vessel operators the limit is under .02
  • A nil alcohol limit is in force for recreational vessel operators under 18 years.

Signs of hypothermia

Immersion in cold water can quickly affect the brain. This creates a dangerous situation because a person may not realise they are in danger.

Obvious signs are:

  • intense shivering
  • slurred speech
  • confusion
  • slowing pulse
  • dilated eye pupils.

Eventually a hypothermic person will lose consciousness and may drown if not wearing a type 1 lifejacket.

Treatment of hypothermia

The aim should be to reduce any further heat loss and try to commence rewarming slowly. Consider the following:

  • Avoid rough handling and exercising of the victim
  • Wet clothing should be removed and dry clothes blankets and other warm materials applied (body heat can also be used)
  • Remember to warm the person slowly, never put them close to a fire or in a hot bath
  • If conscious, give warm drinks (never alcohol)
  • Commence artificial respiration if necessary.

You can find out more about hypothermia in the hypothermia brochure (PDF).

Media resources

Media Resources are free for use and publishing. They all contain the slogan 'Plan and prepare: Cold water kills':

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