April 28, 2014 7:58 pm

Surviving an unexpected cold water immersion: what happens and what do you do?

WATCH: How to stay alive in cold weather

A woman’s story of surviving several hours in cold water after her boat capsized off of Texada Island is being called rare and amazing.

“We have heard of these stories before but they are very rare,” Dale Miller, executive director of the Lifesaving Society of B.C. told Global News.

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“She was wearing a life jacket or Personal Floatation Device (PFD), so that would have helped her immensely with floating but also with insulation.”

The woman, who has not been identified, escaped her troubled vessel and spent a considerable amount of time swimming to the shore of Texada Island. When she reached land, extremely hypothermic, she spent hours looking for help and finally found a cottage to call rescuers.

Her spouse, who was also in the boat at the time of the accident, did not survive the cold water temperatures and was later found on the beach of Texada Island.

Miller said one of the factors of survival in cold water is the clothing you’re wearing when you hit the water. If you’re wearing a heavy coat, the garment will actually hold in the water, which will insulate you and minimize your heat loss.

“The body will heat up the water that’s close to the skin and keep the water in the clothing and keep you warmer longer,” Miller explained.

WATCH: Cold water survival skills

What should you expect if you fall into cold water?

The first thing that happens in an unexpected immersion into cold water is an instant ‘gasp reflex’ and if you’re under water when that occurs, there’s a larger occurrence of drowning, according to Miller.

Also in play in cold water is the constriction of blood vessels, which in turn, puts a considerable amount of stress on the heart, and could cause a person to go into cardiac arrest.

RESOURCE: The Canadian Safe Boating Council’s video site

Knowing the physiological reactions to accidental immersion into cold water, what can a person do?

Miller said they use the ‘1-10-1 principle’. In the first minute of sudden immersion, people will be shocked and start gasping. It’s at that time you want to calm yourself, get control of your breathing and try to check your surroundings.

In the 10 minutes that follow, you need to decide if you’re going to swim or stay with the boat because that’s the amount of time you have before your muscles being to tense up, become incapacitated and your survival is less likely.

Then the one hour after that decision, and depending on if you have a PFD on or heavy clothing, is when you can potentially lapse into unconsciousness or go into cardiac arrest due to hypothermia.

“As you hit the cold water, the blood vessels constrict and sends the blood to your inner core to maintain heart and lung function,” Miller said. “After awhile, your heart is working harder and eventually it’s going to fail – that’s when you have a cardiac arrest or lose consciousness.”

As your body temperature drops, a hypothermic person will display symptoms which include shivering, slurred speech, erratic behaviour and irrational thought. All of the symptoms gradually get worse as the person gets colder.

When it comes to the woman who survived the cold water and hypothermia, Miller said her wearing a PFD, heavy clothes and being a woman (who on average have a higher chance of surviving  compared to men in the same situation due to weight and body mass) all contributed to her coming out alive.

“Without that life jacket this would not be a survival story, instead this would be about a second victim.”

WATCH: How to treat hypothermia

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