May 23, 2019

Lesson embedded in chilly ocean swim Southwest Harbor Coast Guard members endure cold for insight into hypothermia

SOUTHWEST HARBOR – Though the Coast Guard’s cold-water dip Friday was billed as Fools Rush In, those who ran in and out of the frigid Atlantic were aware that there’s nothing foolish about cold-water immersion.

“The idea behind the whole thing [is that] we respond to a lot of people in the water,” Lt. j.g. Jerry Hewes said while watching his chilly co-workers afloat near the station. “This gives you a sense of urgency.”

While the 15 or so people who braved the 40.2 degree ocean clearly enjoyed the sense of shivery camaraderie that came with the swim, it was fun with a purpose.

The Coast Guard uses the April Fool’s Day swim – now in its third year – in part as a training exercise, Hewes said.

Crews had run some of the participants’ height and weight statistics through a computer model that estimated how long they would last in water this cold. One petite woman was given a “functional survival” time of about an hour, Hewes said. Some of her heftier cohorts had about 21/2 hours of functional survival time.

But without survival gear, he said, hypothermia starts setting in almost immediately.

“If you’re in a survival suit, it might expand your functional survival time 30, 36 times,” Hewes said.

That extra time gives Coast Guard search and rescue teams a little breathing room when they’re looking for a lost fisherman or boater. But while computer models can be helpful in determining probability of survival under particular circumstances, Operations Chief Gregory Jones said that elements of survival can’t always be predicted.

“A person’s will to survive changes everything on that model,” Jones said. “It’s a guideline to go by, but people survive pretty amazing things.”

As the dripping swimmers toweled off after their dip, they were more concerned about getting cold toes warmed up than the computer model of survival.

“I was cold but am warm now,” Jessica Adams, a petty officer in administration, said. “It’s for morale and just to have a good time. It’s a learning experience for all of us.”

Andy Mays, a civilian worker at the station, said that aside from his cold feet, he was doing well.

“It’s easy to get in,” he said. “When you’ve got 10, 15 people it’s not hard to get in there at all. It gives you a little insight of what a mob can do.”

Adams said that she was enjoying the sparkling sunshine and blue skies.

“This is like cheating,” she said. “This is the best weather we’ve ever had.”

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