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Sam Sharpe launches his boat late in the afternoon at Riverwalk Marina in Decatur.
Daily photos by Emily Saunders
Sam Sharpe launches his boat late in the afternoon at Riverwalk Marina in Decatur.

Boating in the COLD
Recent death on lake stresses need for precautions against hypothermia

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com · 340-2443

Even with freezing temperatures, low water levels and dangerous swells, some people can’t stay off the Tennessee River during the winter.

“I like to boat during the winter because there’s not that many people out there,” said Sam Sharpe of Hillsboro, who said he takes his boat out twice a week even during winter.

Alabama Marine Police officer Larry Adams said boaters who choose to venture out between November and March need to take extra precautions to protect themselves from hypothermia.

Hypothermia, caused by the body losing heat faster than it can produce it, often occurs when boats are immersed in water during an emergency. Cold water robs the body of heat 25 times faster than air, said Adams.

“I like to boat during the winter because there’s not that many people out there,” said Sam Sharpe of Hillsboro, shown as he prepares to leave Riverwalk Marina on a December outing on the lake.
“I like to boat during the winter because there’s not that many people out there,” said Sam Sharpe of Hillsboro, shown as he prepares to leave Riverwalk Marina on a December outing on the lake.
Morgan County Rescue Squad Chief Tony Weikert said his organization receives about 12 to 15 rescue calls over the winter months and hypothermia is always a concern.

Michael Shane Biles, 38, is the most recent death in the area caused by hypothermia. Biles went kayaking at Wheeler Lake alone at night Dec. 7, one of the coldest nights of the year. Temperatures plummeted that night to about 15 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. The lake’s service temperature that night was 42, however, that was only the first 2 feet of depth.

Biles’ family said he was an experienced kayaker who often went to the river at night to find arrowheads.

But even an experienced kayaker can get taken in by the large swells created by winds during the winter months, said Adams.

“We have a predominant northwest wind here this time of year, and when it gets over 20 mph, it creates really large swells,” he said. “Lake Wheeler is listed as one of the most dangerous lakes in the state because of that.”

Low water levels

Another problem with boating in the winter months is lower water levels, said Weikert.

“When (Tennessee Valley Authority) brings the water down for the winter, boats end up running over stumps and getting stuck,” he said.

He said the water is usually 6 feet deeper during the summer months.

Most cases of hypothermia occur when boats capsize or boaters fall out of the vessel into the water. Boaters should prepare for these potential disasters, said Adams.

“People need to pay attention to the weather to find out about temperatures and wind conditions,” he said. “If there’s a lake wind advisory, they should stay out of the water.”

Adams also recommends that boaters establish a float plan before leaving. A float plan details where the boater plans to dock and where the boat will be travelling.

“You have to tell someone your float plan,” he said.

“If you don’t tell anyone where on the lake you’re going, the rescue teams are going to have a hard time finding you.”

People headed to the lake when it’s cold outside should dress warmly and bring a change of clothes sealed in a waterproof bag in case they get wet.

“It’s one thing to be cold, but it’s another thing to be cold and wet,” said Adams.

Keep or shed clothing?

He added that it’s better to be without clothing than to be cold wearing wet clothes on dry land.

However, when trapped in water because of an accident, one should keep his or her clothes on to trap as much heat as possible and help stay afloat.

If possible, boaters should reboard the vessel.

“You need to get as much of your body out of the water as possible,” said Adams. “Even if you can only get part of your body on the boat, you should.”

As always, a personal flotation device is a necessary lifesaving tool when in the water, said Adams.

Hypothermia symptoms

  • Shivering
  • Bluish lips, skin and fingernails
  • Loss of feeling in extremities
  • Slurred speech and blurred vision
  • Unconsciousness
  • ALABAMA MARINE POLICE

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