NORWALK -- Sixty percent of boaters who drowned in 2007 did so in waters below 50 degrees in temperature, according to the United States Coast Guard.
The majority drowned after experiencing shock from cold-water immersion rather than succumbing to hypothermia.
"If you think that you can swim to shore, you may be surprised as to how far you cannot swim," said Capt. Jon Maggio, commander of the Norwalk Fire Department (NFD) Marine Unit. "Below 50-degree water, statistics pretty much double. Forty-three percent of people died less than six feet from safety."
Nearly 40 local fishermen, rowers and other boaters attended the instructional seminar arranged by Michael Griffin, state of Connecticut harbormaster for Norwalk, at the Norwalk Fire Department headquarters on Connecticut Avenue on Wednesday evening.
"Cold Water Boot Camp," a 30-minute video produced by the National Water Safety Congress with funding from the Coast Guard, was the centerpiece of the event.
After falling into cold waters, swimmers have about one minute to recover from the initial shock and get their breathing under control, according to video narrator Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht of the University of Manitoba.
Those who manage to do so have about 10 minutes of "meaningful movement" before they are no longer able to swim. Hypothermia sets in only after 30 minutes to two hours in the water, according to Giesbrecht.
In the video, Coast Guard volunteers tested their abilities to withstand the effects of cold water and found themselves surprised.
"I got about three-fourths of the way (to shore) and I started getting winded," one swimmer said afterward. "I swallowed some water and couldn't get my breath. Without the rescuer, I would have drowned."
Of the half-dozen volunteers who jumped off the Coast Guard vessel into the water, only one made it to the nearby shoreline without the aid of a rescue swimmer.
Maggio advises local rowers and other boaters to always wear life jackets and stick close to their vessels if they fall overboard. Hanging onto a capsized boat allows one to keep his or her torso out of the frigid waters. A vessel also makes a visible target for rescuers.
Griffin and Maggio plan to hold the seminar each year to teach boaters about boating and safety in cold waters.
While air temperatures may rise into the 70s during the springtime, water temperatures lag significantly behind. On Wednesday, they were 42 degrees in Norwalk.
"The goal is really to impress upon (boaters) the seriousness of using Norwalk Harbor during a period of low water temperatures that would have a serious potential for complicating an already threatening man-overboard situation," Griffin said.