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OVERBOARD: Deep survival in winter waters off New England coast

 A life-or-death ordeal for a New England lobsterman in the frigid North Atlantic waters

The lobsterman's thoughts were not focused on possibly dying - but rather on finding a way to survive in the December waters off the New England coast. When I asked the fisherman how he kept alive, he answered simply, "It's a mental thing".

It was early afternoon in December and this was supposed to be a routine run of checking lobster traps. That all changed when he slipped on the deck of his boat and fell into the frigid water. 

The boat was on auto pilot, and the only other deck hand did not immediately notice that his partner was no longer on the boat. Now afloat in the frigid water, the lobsterman watched as his boat kept pulling away from his location. Adding more to the dilemma, the seasoned fisherman was being carried away from the boat in the opposite direction by the tides.

The water temperature for the New England water in December normally registers in the low-to-mid 40's, and death from hypothermia can occur in an hour or two. The unfortunate fisherman estimates that he was in the water for roughly one hour and 20 minutes. A survival suit would have provided flotation and thermal insulation, but he was wearing his usual lobstering gear There would be minimal protection from the cold water.

Kicking off his boots was easy, but finding a flotation device appeared almost impossible, but the 5-gallon bucket that the fisherman had been holding when he went overboard was floating nearby. He dumped it out - turned it upside down - and used it to help keep him afloat.

The deck hand meanwhile had noticed the absence of his partner on the boat - notified the Coast Guard along with the GPS coordinates - and began his search. The cold-and-immersed lobsterman could see his boat and the Coast Guard craft, but they didn't head south where the tidal currents were carrying him.

Thankfully,  a rescuer -with some volunteers - headed out to aid in the search, and after close to an hour-and-a-half, spotted the veteran fisherman still clinging to the overturned bucket. The rescuers got the bone-chilling, wet clothes off and wrapped him in a blanket - after which he was transported to a hospital. He not only survived the ordeal, but suffered no lasting ill effects from his immersion in the icy waters.

How much longer could he have survived? Here is one chart that may yield some answers, although factors other than water temperature could render these times optimistic.

In his excellent book, DEEP SURVIVAL - WHO LIVES, WHO DIES, AND WHY author, Laurence Gonzales, stresses that survivors stay calm, are decisive and don't give up. In other words "It's a mental thing".

The survivor of this ordeal grew up on the North Shore of Massachusetts and is an accomplished outdoorsman and athlete. Those qualities served him well in coming out of the winter waters alive and well.

So I believe that his endurance and athleticism played a role in his survival, but in the end - it was his tough mindset that kept him alive. Who else would endure such an energy-sapping ordeal and relate it to me as though it was merely another day on the water.


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