Kayaking is a popular form of recreational and competitive paddling. It’s a wonderful sport in its own right as well as being a great way to explore the outdoors. 

The number of kayaks and canoes in this country has increased over the last few decades, which means there are more people out on the water (even if they’re not all very good at it).

However, when it comes to any watercraft, safety must come first. Even if you’re an expert paddler with years of experience, remember that others may not share your skills and knowledge. 

For example, you might know that there are lots of submerged rocks in a stretch of water; a new kayaker may not.

What is a leading cause of death for paddlers in small crafts such as canoes, kayaks, and rafts?

1. Drowning

This is the name given to dying due to submersion in water. In this article we look at the common causes of paddler drowning and how you can minimise your risk of drowning by taking precautions.

Objects floating in water can be very hard to see if you’re looking at them from above.

 As a result, many drownings occur when a craft capsizes and the remaining occupants fall out – but the boat itself doesn’t sink. 

Those inside think it’s still water-worthy, climb back in and continue paddling. As the craft gradually sinks, they gradually become more water logged and eventually sink too.

2. Cold water shock

After a period of prolonged activity in cold water, the body becomes depleted of heat and can’t generate enough warmth to keep functioning. 

This is known as cold water shock or cold incapacitation. As a result, muscles will tense up, making it hard to paddle or swim and generally making paddling an incredibly difficult task. 

A paddler may then make the mistake of stopping to rest or climb out of his/her craft: both of these actions lead to drowning.

3. Prolonged submersion

This is a common cause of accidental death in cold water and requires the paddler to be submerged in cold water for an extended period. 

The length of time the paddler is submerged affects only the extent of submersion, not the cause of it.

 If a paddler submerges for an hour, it does not make him/her more likely to drown than if he or she were fully immersed for 30 minutes or less.

 A series of exertions may increase this risk over several hours – simply being immersed during that time period can increase the likelihood of drowning.

4. Exposure to the cold

Exposure to cold may not directly cause death, but it increases the likelihood of it. Paddlers need to be aware of their clothing and how long they are in the water for.

The most important element of exposure is hypothermia. This can be caused by cold water, but is most commonly caused by loss of circulation and shivering.

Many times when a paddler has fallen out of a craft, the remaining occupants have simply slipped out of the craft but not checked if the paddler had dived under the surface to rejoin them. For this reason they may not have seen or heard him/her fall. 

The effect of this is that they will continue paddling for a while longer before giving up and searching for him/her. 

The problem is that even when they are finally in a position to check, they may simply not see him/her because he/she has sunk below the surface and is no longer visible from above.

5. Hypothermia

This occurs when the body absorbs more heat than it can produce and core body temperature decreases to a dangerous level.

 As the body cools down, shivering sets in and this causes a loss of muscle strength. 

Shivering can also move blood away from the main organs – including the heart – which can result in decreased cardiac output due to low blood pressure (cardiogenic shock). Cardiogenic shock is a major cause of paddler death and is more likely in cold water than warm water.

6. What about hypothermia?

The effect of hypothermia varies considerably depending on how cold conditions are, how long you’ve been exposed and your own physical condition (Centers for Disease Control).

Occupational hypothermia is the most likely form in cold and stormy conditions. 

An essential feature of this condition is shivering which increases blood heat loss by moving the blood away from the vital organs. 

Hypothermia can occur very quickly in cold water and can be very debilitating or even fatal if it occurs as a result of strangulation (resulting from entrapment of the windpipe). As a result, hypothermia is an important cause of paddling deaths.

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