Swimming Against the Odds: An Account of Hypothermia
by Chuck Johnson
Cold water is a threat not only to kayakers but to other boaters. Two sea kayakers come to the assistance of a fisherman whose luck was not measured by the size of a fish.
Jeanelle and I live on Discovery Bay, near Sequim, Washington. Several years ago, Jeanelle’s Midwest-based mother, Vera, after learning that we frequently boat on these vast, cold waters, asked, “What do you do if you fall in?” I replied, “We don’t.”
Well, Vera—I fell in.
Last fall, after seven or eight seasons of using an inflatable boat to haul up and gather the contents of shrimp and crab pots, I decided, “Enough.” The boat’s rounded sides and tight crevices made it difficult to clean and provided limited space for carrying gear, so I bought an old shallow-draft 12-foot aluminum skiff from a neighbor. Its smooth sides and flat bottom were easy to clean; however, I soon learned that this boat was much less stable than the inflatable. Jeanelle and I tried it out a couple of times and realized that we had to be careful using it when hauling for crab and shrimp pots. I decided I would use it only in calm weather and would stick with the inflatable for rough-water work.
I began using the aluminum boat in the spring just before the end of crab season and used it two or three times. Winter storms wash up large logs and gravel each year, and the old aluminum boat was easy to carry over to the water when the launching ramp was blocked with debris. I pulled crab pots with a neighbor, although I made sure he knew to be careful when moving about in the boat. A couple of times I was so stern with him about keeping the boat safely on an even keel, that I fear I hurt his feelings. After the crab season was over, I decided to fish for flounder. I considered getting out the inflatable, but the old aluminum boat was already on the trailer, so I headed to the beach with it. Although the logs had been removed from the ramp, a bank of gravel, three or four feet deep, remained. Jeanelle helped me carry the motor, then the boat, up and over the gravel to the water’s edge. I carried a small two-way radio and told Jeanelle that I would call her soon to check in.
The day was cool, only 55?F, but the sun was bright. The water was calm, with a slight chop pushing to the south. As I headed south, running with the chop, the boat rode well and felt smooth and stable. I headed a mile or so south of the launch, intending to fish at a depth of around 140 feet, offshore from a huge landslide that had occurred a few years ago. I found the area where I’d caught flounder before, shut down the motor and tossed a bell anchor with a long rode overboard. Although I had no depth finder, I figured I was probably too shallow because the anchor didn’t take enough of the line. Nonetheless, I decided to bait up and try fishing. As it turned out, the anchor didn’t hold fully. The boat slowly drifted south, bobbing along with the wind and the chop. The anchor was probably in sand and was being dragged at a slow rate. Perfect! I could let the boat drift slowly and cover the whole bar.
A man and a woman in single sea kayaks paddled south up the bay toward me. They paused near me, and we drifted along together. They said they were new to the area, and the man wanted to know what I was fishing for and what I used for bait. I welcomed them to the community and asked about their boats. While I had only paddled a kayak a few times, they have always interested me, and I enjoyed seeing them on Discovery Bay. We spoke a little more, and I told them to have a good paddle. They continued on their way south. I fished and watched them as they paddled a mile or so past me and out of sight.
About 45 minutes later, I called Jeanelle on the radio and told her everything was OK. I drifted across the entire bar without a bite. I pulled the anchor, started the motor and headed back north to the beginning of the bar. I also went farther out to find deeper water. When I was between 100 and 200 yards offshore, I dropped anchor again, and found that it took more line. I figured I had found the roughly 140 feet of water I was looking for. I began fishing again.
Because of the wind and chop, I was concerned about the boat, although not really afraid. I thought about the fact that I always wore a life jacket, and although I knew it would keep me afloat, it wouldn’t protect me from the cold water. The chop increased to gentle waves. They nudged from the north, lapping against the port side of the boat where I had tied the anchor to the oarlock. I knew I shouldn’t do this because it sets the boat to take current and waves on the beam instead of the bow, but the water wasn’t so rough that I thought it would be a problem. Beyond taking my normal precautions, I didn’t give it much thought—I was just fishing in conditions that I’d fished in many times before.
Quite abruptly, things went very wrong. It happened so quickly that it was almost impossible for me to register exactly what happened. A lot of water poured into the boat. I seem to remember it coming over the starboard gunwale, although logic would indicate that water would have come in on the port side, where the anchor was tied and where the waves were striking. The 10 inches of water in the bottom of the boat sloshed back and forth. I scrambled to keep the boat level, but it didn’t work. The boat flipped over, and suddenly, I was in the water. I was amazed at how quickly it happened.
I felt no panic. Instead, I immediately and clearly understood several things: The situation was very bad; I was fully immersed in the water; in these cold waters hypothermia would steal my ability to function in a matter of minutes; my chances for survival were slim.
I could bear it for the moment. I remembered reading some time ago, “There is no good way to die.” I thought about William Colby, the former CIA director who had arteriosclerosis and made the decision to launch his canoe into a strong breeze from the shore of a Potomac River tributary. He didn’t come back. I’ve always had admiration for him because, at 76 and in poor health, he chose his way to die. I thought about myself at 70 years old, and how I had a plan to make it 10 more years, still being able to enjoy life. I’d shared this plan with Jeanelle. Like Colby, I may decide to die sometime, but this was not the time.
I had to figure out what to do. I had choices. I could stay with the boat. Flotation material under the seats was keeping it afloat. My life jacket was keeping me afloat without my having to tread water. I could stay with the boat or let go and swim for shore. The waters were vast, and that little upside-down boat and I weren’t likely to be seen by anyone who could initiate a rescue. I knew that my chances for survival would be worse if I stayed with the boat. I had to get out of the cold water. All of these thoughts happened within a matter of moments. I decided to swim for shore.
I wore boots that covered me up to the hips. They had filled with water and were weighing me down. I had to get them off. The right one came off rather easily, but the left one was difficult, requiring maybe 30 seconds of struggle for me to get it off. I knew I didn’t have 30 seconds to waste, much less the energy, but the boots came off. I checked the straps and clips on my life jacket to make sure they were well fastened, then pushed off from the boat.
After swimming a few strokes, I seemed to be moving through the water, but I realized that my bulky life jacket was slowing my progress. While I realized I could swim faster without it, I also knew that without its buoyancy, all would be lost. I pressed on.
I remembered that hypothermia would take effect within 15 minutes in these waters. Given my slow pace, I realized it wasn’t likely that I’d make it to shore in that time. Yet still, I felt no panic. I knew that the wind and perhaps a slight current were moving south, parallel to the shore, and I thought about swimming with the current, headed for a more distant point but reaching it more quickly. I had done this type of swimming in riptides in waters off the East Coast. However, I decided to try for the shortest route.
I didn’t think the wind would affect what little there was of me that was out of the water, and I wasn’t really sure the current was moving south, even though I had noted the current earlier when the boat had been dragging the anchor south across the bar. I swam directly at the shore. I could see to my left (south) and behind me better than I could see ahead. I looked back and I saw the shoes I’d carried in the boat, perhaps 20 feet apart, floating upright, nicely bobbing on top of the chop and riding the waves. In this remote area, with no development along the shore, I always took a good pair of athletic shoes with me so if the motor died, I could row to the nearest shore and walk for help. The shoes were now out ahead of the boat, which seemed to continue drifting south, no doubt still dragging the anchor. I thought that the shoes looked so perfect, little ships, requiring no draft at all. I realized that I had been swimming for probably five minutes and was only a very short distance from the boat and the shoes. I knew they weren’t going in my direction, which told me it was going to take longer than I’d hoped to make shore. I looked at the shore. It seemed the same distance as when I began swimming. No panic. I told myself to keep swimming. But I knew that the odds I’d make it were growing slimmer.
Determination and adrenaline still powered my swimming. I didn’t feel cold and wondered how that could be. Despite the absence of feeling cold, I knew not to be fooled. The water here was always close to 47˚F, whether winter or summer. I had to reach shore quickly. From my angle, it looked at least a half-mile away, although I’d hoped I had closed the gap to no more than 100 yards. I knew this probably wasn’t true, though. A hundred yards was only a fraction of the distance I had to swim, but as I swam, I needed to believe that I had only that far to go.
I was actually rather comfortable. The small waves of the chop were unchanged and didn’t pose a significant problem, and there wasn’t even any saltwater in my mouth. I decided to guess how many strokes it would take to make shore. I set the goal at a thousand. No, too high. I guessed 700 or 800. I decided that if I could make 800 strokes, I would make it to shore.
I began to count the scissor kicks of my legs. I got to 200 and kept counting. I lost track. Was it 200 or 300? I decided it was 200. I made it to 300, then 360. Then 360 again. I had made it to 360 twice. Had any of my counting been right? I knew what was happening. I was cold. I was really cold, although I didn’t feel it. I wondered if I was experiencing the effects of hypothermia. I didn’t know. I thought about my son-in-law, a doctor. He would probably know. I wondered if he would think I should know, too. I tried to keep the count going, but I couldn’t concentrate on it. I could tell that shore was closer. I felt like shouting for joy. It was closer. It was working. I couldn’t keep the count, but the shore part was working. I kept swimming, making myself swim reasonably, sort of timed, deliberate, repetitive and hard strokes. I decided that my 15 minutes were up. I’d been in the water at least that long, but I was doing fine. I hadn’t decided that I would make it. It was too far yet. I guessed that I was more than halfway, but it still seemed so far.
As I swam, I began to realize that my legs weren’t working right. No panic. I knew that was part of the deal. I spoke to them aloud and told them to work right and I concentrated on their motion. They did better. I think. My arms were working OK, but my fingers were very cold. They didn’t seem to be right. I raised my right hand out of the water to look. For the first time, I realized I was wearing brown jersey gloves. My fingers were spread wide apart. I forced them together, but somehow, they wanted to be spread. I knew that wasn’t good. If I could keep my fingers together, I’d have a better pull. An extra half-inch each stroke. A half-inch was important. I kept swimming. My legs were acting up, sort of fuzzy or rubbery, but I told them to work right. At least they worked. My fingers were not so good. They were colder. Numb? I didn’t take a hand out of the water to look. I couldn’t afford the lost stroke.
The shore was close—no more than 50 or 100 feet. I was going to make it. But maybe not. I thought my thinking was clear. I knew this water. At that spot, the bottom was partially covered with grass and partially covered with white sand. I looked. I saw it. I could see the bottom! I didn’t know if I could touch it. I didn’t try. I knew I had only a tiny bit of energy left, and if I tried to touch the bottom and failed, that could be all I had. I swam a little more. I was sure I could touch the bottom. I did. I looked down and saw my blue jeans and double pair of white socks. It was sort of a shock. I hadn’t thought about what I was wearing. Suddenly, I was walking.
Actually, I was only sort of walking. The water was still waist deep, and my PFD was partly supporting me. I moved toward shore and, as the water shallowed, I realized that my legs wouldn’t hold me. I crawled out on all fours, getting my first mouthful of saltwater. The beach was part sand and part barnacle-covered rocks. It was a low tide, but I really didn’t connect the presence of the barnacles with the state of the tide. Even with my jeans, gloves and socks, the barnacles were sharp—but it was so wonderful. The sun was strong, but I quickly realized that I was so cold. I couldn’t function normally—maybe, not at all.
I thought that the kayakers I had met were down the beach somewhere, but I knew that even if they were, they’d never see me while I was down on all fours. There were rocks on the beach as big as I am. I took a couple of minutes to try to regain myself, then tried to stand. I made it, wobbly, but I made it. I realized that wet blue jeans hold a lot of water. It was streaming off me.
Hunched over with fatigue and cold, I could see one powerboat going south out in the middle of the bay. It was fast and small—very far away. A mile, a mile and a half? No chance. I thought I could see the kayakers way down the beach. I shouted, “Help!” as loudly as I could. I was surprised to have had that much voice; it seemed pretty loud. I was also surprised that I got a reaction from down the beach. I could tell that they heard me the first time. Sound over water carries well. Also I was upwind of them. I didn’t think about that at the time, though. At that moment, I just knew that they heard me. They seemed like little mannequins, but at my shout, they moved. They were too far away for me to see them well, but I could tell they changed whatever they were doing when I shouted. I shouted again. They looked around, searching for the source of the sound. I could see the light shine on their faces. I shouted again and they spotted me. I could tell that one of them was looking toward the upside-down boat that had continued to drift south nearer them. I was farther away. One of them began running toward me, which felt nearly as good to me as the moment I had touched the beach.
I didn’t think about whether or not they would know how to treat my hypothermia. Later, I realized that they probably knew as much, if not more, about cold water and its dangers as I did. I began trying to stumble in the direction of the kayakers, making it up the 100-foot-wide rock and sand beach over huge drift logs. As the gap closed between the running kayaker and me, I stopped to sit on a log and tried to get out of my wet clothes. The life jacket came off, and I spent considerable time trying to place it on the log just right, which somehow seemed important at the time. It took me a while, and I knew that I should get out of my wet clothes, but everything seemed to move in slow motion—except the person running toward me. Soon I could tell that she was a woman. She told me to get out of my clothes. I kept trying, but I was doing a poor job, so she helped me. She said, “Don’t look—I’m going to give you my clothes.” A big, dry, sweatshirt came down over my head. No million-dollar piece of clothing could ever feel so good. Ever. I realized she had put on my wet jacket. I also realized that this woman knew what she was doing. She was taking charge.
Her partner paddled up in one of the kayaks after having apparently gone by way of my boat to check for other people. By this time, my jeans and socks were off but I was still wearing wet undershorts. As I got them off, he took his pants off and helped me get them on. They felt good, too, but nothing could compare to that dry sweatshirt. The sun remained bright, but there was a bit of wind out of the north. I was a little more coherent, so I snuggled down behind my log out of the wind, exposing as much of my body to the sun as I could.
The woman had gone to the water and set off in her kayak for help. I shouted that she needed to know who I was. She flipped up the large pouch of fishing licenses attached to my wet jacket that she was wearing and said, “I know who you are.” It was sort of funny. As she paddled away, I realized that I was feeling better. Not only did she know what to do, she could really paddle. The man remained on the beach, his legs bare. They had told me their names, George and Vicki, but everything was a little fuzzy, and it took a while before I could remember the names. I remained down in my nest of drift logs.
It occurred to me that I had been wearing sunglasses all the time I was swimming. I remembered their getting tangled as my clothes came off. At this point, I was wearing George’s pants, Vicki’s sweatshirt and a woolen pullover cap from—who knows. The pants were short and my feet were bare. I noticed how brown my legs were from having spent the winter in the south and how white my feet were from wearing shoes and socks. All these little things seemed interesting. George and I talked, but I couldn’t concentrate on what we talked about. I couldn’t stop shaking, and my teeth were chattering. But I felt reasonably warm. I was aware that it was my upper body warmth that counted, and with that wonderful sweatshirt, I was pretty well covered.
Around 45 minutes later, George spotted a boat coming south along our shore. After a while I could see that it was my neighbor Tom’s boat, but he went cruising by at full throttle. He was only about 50 yards offshore, but George, who was waving his arms as much as he could, says Tom was looking away from shore, out over the water. Obviously, he was chasing after my upside-down boat, which by this time was a mile or so farther south. At my boat, he slowed, then continued toward Gardiner. After three or four miles, he was lost from sight.
He returned a little while later, this time looking toward shore. He spotted George at the water’s edge waving his hands. Tom had brought some clothing. I was feeling some extra stiffness, but I got them on with only a little difficulty. I got in Tom’s boat and we headed north toward home. The boat was shallow, and we traveled into the wind. I was cold. The trip was only five minutes, but I was really cold.
There were several people waiting as we arrived at the beach. Someone made me put some boots on my bare feet to help in walking across the gravelly beach. The boots were so small, I couldn’t get my feet into them, but I got them on far enough to walk. Three women helped me walk the 60 feet to a waiting car. I could probably have made it with one or two of them, but it would have been difficult alone. I felt colder than when I was in my log nest on the beach. I was encouraged to get checked out by a doctor, but I insisted that I was fine. Our neighbor Jean drove me home.
Jeanelle wasn’t there, but knowing I must get warm, I headed for the shower. It felt great. I could function a little better, and after a while, I realized that the water from the tap was getting cold. That had never happened before, and it took me a little time to realize I’d used all the hot water in the tank. I toweled off and dressed. Jeanelle arrived, and after I told her what had happened, we went back to the beach to talk with whoever was still there. One of them said my words were still slurred. I returned to the house hoping the water heater had recovered. It had. I ran water into the tub and got in. I stayed a long time, adding hot water as much and as often as I could stand it. When I finally got out, I was really warm—too warm. It felt good, though.
I knew I was going to be fine. I thought about a lot of things, including sea kayakers Vicki and George, without whose help I wouldn’t be fine.
Chuck Johnson is retired from a career of teaching and lecturing on EQ (Emotional Quotient). He lives in Sequim, Washington, and Venice, Florida.
Editor’s Note: We published this account to provide a personal perspective on the effects of immersion hypothermia. Sea Kayaker’s regular readers may well be familiar with the many things that the author could have done to be better prepared for surviving in the water, but those are outside the scope of this article. The symptoms Chuck describes (his confusion while trying to count strokes, the lack of responsiveness in his legs and hands, and his slurred speech) may have indicated that he was transitioning from mild to moderate hypothermia. Since hypothermia affects judgement, self-assessment may not be accurate or appropriate.
The “passive rewarming” measures taken at the beach—changing into dry clothes and getting out of the wind—and the “active rewarming” measures Chuck took at home—a hot shower over the entire body—are appropriate for cases of mild hypothermia. In this situation, Chuck recovered without incident. More advanced cases require careful treatment. Physical activity, rough handling by rescuers, or rewarming the limbs can send cold blood to the heart and cause cardiac arrest. Sea Kayaker strongly recommends that all paddlers, especially those in cold water regions, learn to recognize the symptoms of hypothermia and get qualified training in its treatment.