Planning for Northern Michigan cold water safety is critical for even the most experienced. Just ask Rachel North. When your brother is an expert paddler and dies of hypothermia after paddling a calm bay on a bright sunny spring day, one would have a lot of questions. Rachel North, David Dickerson‘s sister experienced just that and she’s collaborating with the U.S. Coast Guard, based in Traverse City, to share the answers she found, after her brother died in April 2012 on Omena Bay.

“What ever turned my brother’s canoe on that beautiful spring day, put him into 41 degree water,” says Rachel North, marketing director for MyNorth and Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. “He was only wearing his life jacket, shorts and a fleece. He was alone, he had no way of alerting anyone. Worse, everything he needed to survive that accident, was hanging in his closet.”

Working with the Coast Guard, North identifies the key things to keep in mind if considering recreating in cold water. Here are the Coast Guard’s tips:

Know the Water Temperature

North believes her brother misjudged the water temperature. She is working with local weathermen to include the average water temperature in local weather casts. When one knows the temperature, one can adapt to those conditions.

If you need to look up the water temperature yourself, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration provides the average temperature of the Great Lakes daily.

Dress for the Water Weather

Life Jackets—Don’t Just Have Them in the Boat; Wear Them If you fall into the Great Lakes when the water is 60 degrees or cooler, the shock of the cold can trigger a gasp, filling your lungs with water. Not only can wearing a lifejacket prevent you from going completely under, but it will hold you above the water should you pass out from hypothermia. Additionally, you won’t have to waste valuable time swimming for a lifejacket and struggling to get it on.

Dress for Submersion—Wetsuits, Drysuits Wear cold water clothing appropriate for the water temperature: wet suits, dry suits, etc. Charles River Canoe & Kayak uses the following chart with the recommendation that some people need more protection from cold.

Paddlers may prefer drysuits, which are generally more expensive than wetsuits. Wetsuits can be too hot when worn out of the water and exercising like paddling. And wetsuits will hold sweat in. Wetsuits vary in thickness from 3-millimeter suits good for 60-degree water all the way up to 9-millimeter suits designed for ice diving. Drysuits are breathable, but keep the water away and depend on layers of clothes underneath for warmth.

Two Boats Are Better

The buddy system works in paddling and fishing. If one kayaker or canoe is disabled, the other can help. In spring, many people don’t have their boats out yet. There isn’t anyone on shore to call if you need help.

Take the Search Out of Search & Rescue—Use an EPIRB

The U.S. Coast Guard promotes the use of location beacons because the signal leads the rescue team right to the area of the accident, speeding up the rescue and as they like to say, “taking the search out of search and rescue.”  There are two levels of beacons, a personal location beacon and EPIRBs, emergency position-indicating radio beacons, which also signal maritime distress.

Flares, glow sticks, flashlights help rescue personal find your craft at night. Also, the reflective trim on your life vest will help the Coast Guard find one at night.  Protect your cell phone with a waterproof dry sack and attach that to your life vest.

“Warm air inspires us all to get outside. When being outside means getting on the water, boaters put themselves in danger when they don’t prepare for cold water,” says Cmdr. Buzzella. “Even experienced boaters mistake a warm day for safe water temperatures and can fall prey to hypothermia if they end up in the water.” Cold water carries heat away from the body 25 times faster than air of the same temperature and as a result, the body core immediately begins to lose heat. Strong currents, like rivers or waves can increase the speed of the heat loss.

North’s brother Dave was an expert paddler and sailor, often training others in how to right a canoe, and roll a kayak. The corner’s report indicated that once in the water, Dave had six minutes before hypothermia set in.

“My brother loved his time canoeing on the Great Lakes,” says North. “And especially spring. He’d have wanted people to get out on the water, wearing a lifejacket and a drysuit, carrying an EPIRB and traveling with a buddy. So enjoy the Great Lakes, safely.”

Wondering about the proper gear to make sure you have? This video offers some ideas.