National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

The Hazard of Cold Water Boating

Particular caution is necessary early in the boating season across the North Country

The National Weather Service (NWS) in Burlington, Vermont urges extreme caution when boating, canoeing, or kayaking during the spring, when water temperatures typically remain dangerously cold in the event of a capsize.

After a long North Country winter, thoughts naturally turn toward warm weather recreational activities. The first warm days of spring often attract boaters and other recreational enthusiasts to the many beautiful lakes, rivers, and streams across Vermont and northern New York.

Those venturing out on area lakes and rivers need to be aware of the dangers posed by cold water temperatures. On pleasantly warm and dry days in April and May, it is easy to overlook the fact that the temperature of the water is much slower to respond to the change of season and warms much more slowly than the air temperature. Rivers are often still affected by runoff from melting snow from mountain summits. Lakes continue to up-well cold water from below until a temperature of 39°F, and then increase in temperature slowly based on amount and days of sunshine, near surface air temperature, and the size of the body of water. On Lake Champlain, climate records indicate that surface water temperatures are typically in the upper 30s in late April, and only rise into the 40s during May.

Immersion in cold water can become life threatening very quickly. Should your craft capsize, hypothermia in waters with temperatures in the upper 30s and 40s can occur in just a matter of minutes. Since water conducts body heat away up to 26 times faster than air of the same temperature, the cold water rapidly causes extremities to become numb, weakening the ability of muscles to work effectively. Tragically, several individuals have lost their lives on North Country rivers and lakes in recent years, drowning in the very low water temperatures of early May.

The NWS urges the following safety measures to protect yourself and maximize your enjoyment of area waterways:

  • Consider postponing small craft boating activities until water temperatures become warmer in late spring and summer.
  • If you do choose to boat, canoe, or kayak in April or May, wear a dry suit appropriate for water temperatures in the high 30s and 40s.
  • Wear all recommended protective gear to guard against the cold water in the event of an accident or capsize.

Remember, no matter the season, when you are on the water, always wear your life jacket.

Safe boating is no accident! Please take the time to think safety first and plan appropriately for weather and water conditions before heading out on lakes, rivers, and streams.

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