Hypothermia on San Francisco Bay is a very real danger. Sailing in the cold wet conditions of San Francisco Bay can and will result in hypothermia if proper steps are not taken. Recognizing the symptoms and understanding first aid treatment options may be the difference between an enjoyable sail and tragedy.
Before going too far, understand that I am not a doctor. The stages, symptoms, and treatments talked about here are commonly accepted as accurate, however, seeking professional expertise is always a good idea. As part of your sailing education, I encourage everyone to seek first aid training from qualified organizations and individuals.
There are three degrees of hypothermia, mild, moderate, and severe.
With mild hypothermia, the body’s internal temperature has dropped to 95 degrees or below. The most visible symptoms include shivering, mental confusion, and mild muscle “miss-coordination.” The person may be having trouble speaking. At this stage, the body is still able to warm itself, so first aid treatment should be focused on helping the body do just that. Shelter from the cold, warm dry clothing, warm liquids, and staying active are great examples. I personally carry four blankets anytime I sail just for that purpose. Alcohol and caffeinated drinks should never be given.
Moderate hypothermia is indicated when the body’s core temperature has dropped below 90 degrees. Shivering has progressed to violent shivering and there is a distinct lack of muscle coordination, including speech. The surface blood vessels contract. The person becomes pale, with lips, ears, fingers, and toes possibly turning blue. The body may no longer be able to warm itself, and requires external assistance. As with mild hypothermia, a warm environment and warm dry clothes (or blankets) are the place to start. However, with moderate hypothermia, application of external heat such as a heating blanket and warm water bottles placed in the armpits and groin will begin the rewarming process. If nothing else is available, body to body contact while wrapped in blankets will help. Now is not the time for gender concerns and modesty. Liquids generally should not be given to someone suffering moderate hypothermia. There lack of muscle coordination may have impacted their ability to swallow.
Severe hypothermia is the body’s internal temperature falling below 82 degrees. Vital organs begin to shut down. Symptoms include difficulty speaking, sluggish thinking, amnesia, an inability to walk normally, and perform normal hand dexterity functions. The person may lose consciousness. It can be very difficult to find a pulse on a severely hypothermic person. Treatment obviously includes all of the first aid steps appropriate to moderate hypothermia, however, you must get the person immediate emergency medical treatment!
Here’s one last thought. The water temperature on San Francisco Bay averages about 50 to 60 degrees depending upon the time of year. In 50 degree water, death can occur in as little as 1 hour. The beginning stages of hypothermia happen after just a few minutes. If anybody should fall overboard while sailing, by the time you get them recovered, you can assume at least mild hypothermia. Begin first aid treatment right away … even if they say it isn’t needed.