RowSafeUSA: Cold Water Safety

RowSafeUSA: Cold Water Safety

This blog on cold water safety courtesy of Marc Messing who runs

Northwestern University Rower’s Death

A Northwestern University rower has drowned after falling into the waters of the Chicago River North Channel without a lifejacket. Reports say that the water was cold and swift-moving. The rower, Mohammed Ramzan of Auburn, Washington, was a nineteen year old freshman rowing with Northwestern University’s (club) crew team when he fell into the water. He apparently never surfaced in the murky, cold, moving water. A coach and one other person dove into the water in an attempt to rescue him, but were unsuccessful. Both rescuers were later hospitalized along with a firefighter who was hospitalized for routine decontamination after exposure to the river water.

Rowing deaths are rare on warm water and under safe conditions, but more common in the life-threatening temperatures of cold water.

Following Mohammed Ramzan’s death it is appropriate to review the particular dangers of cold water as discussed in USRowing’s 2007 safety video:

  • cold water is, the video explains, “extremely dangerous when below 50 degrees”
  • “the initial cold shock from falling into cold water provokes an immediate gasp reflex of up to two to three quarts of air, or water if your head is submerged”
  • breathing and heart rates accelerate
  • swimming failure can set in after only three minutes
  • “cold water can quickly numb the extremities to the point of uselessness”
  • “within minutes, severe pain clouds rational thought”

It is also appropriate to review the guidance offered in January, 2015, apparently directed primarily to scullers:

  • “uncontrolled shivering, disorientation and impaired judgment start to occur before exhaustion or unconsciousness.”
  • someone in a launch “can throw you a life jacket”
  • “take an inflatable lifejacket and stow it under the floorboard”
  • “row with a buddy” and “make some noise” if you fall in
  • “below 50 degrees… survival time is probably not long enough for a rescue…”

Those are serious cautions. If one survives the first minute of sudden immersion — and most, but not all, do — within minutes the shock can cloud rational thought and compromise the ability to hold on to objects, put on a lifejacket, or swim. In the absence of a lifejacket, survival time may not be long enough for a rescue.

Accidents happen at all levels of the sport, sometimes because of small mistakes and sometimes because of forces beyond our control. Rowers who cycle or ski in the off-season should consider their own attitudes towards cycling and skiing helmets, or to batting helmets in baseball and face guards in football and hockey. All of those were opposed when they were first introduced. Traditionalists argued that they were unnecessary, unnatural, hot, uncomfortable, added extra weight, and chafed. Now they’re all either required or generally accepted. PFDs are much the same.

Given our current understanding of cold water shock, and advances in the technology of PFDs, there is no longer any good reason for rowers not to wear lifejackets. In the event of sudden immersion in cold water a life jacket may be the only thing that can save your life.

Rest in peace, Mohammed Ramzan. We are deeply saddened by your loss.


* The North Channel is approximately thirty to forty feet wide and connects the Chicago River with Lake Michigan above Evanston. It is polluted, has heavy shrubbery in many parts and limited, or difficult, access for rescue workers.