Cold water shock kills | Life jackets save lives

With summer here, trips to local lakes for a day of boating with family and friends are the best way to enjoy summer. Like any activity, however, accidents can happen.

Northern Nevada recently experienced record-breaking precipitation in 2016 and 2017 leading to threatening water levels at local lakes and rivers. With the unfamiliarity of high water levels, boaters are entering unknown and possibly dangerous situations. The good news is that with only a few small steps, boaters can remain safe without spending money or time obsessing about it.

To begin, if every person on the water wore a life jacket, more than 80 percent of fatal boat accidents would not happen, according to U.S. Coast Guard Statistics.

“Our years of investigating these accidents show that people die in the first 5 minutes of hitting the water because of cold water shock.” -Nick Duhe

“Having fun safely isn’t complicated and it doesn’t have to be overwhelming,” said Game Warden Captain David Piffner, the boating law administrator at the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), in a press release. “If you just wear a life jacket on the water, you’ve taken care of most of what usually goes wrong.”

In Northern Nevada, cold water shock is a huge factor in many fatal boating and paddling accidents. When a person falls or jumps into cold, alpine water, the first instinct to gasp in shock. This initial reaction sets off a chain reaction that often leads to drowning. Life jackets give people a few minutes to control their breathing, calm down and then self-rescue.

“Life jackets are the first and best defense against cold water,” said Nick Duhe, a boating safety instructor for NDOW. “We used to talk about hypothermia, but that rarely happens. Our years of investigating these accidents show that people die in the first 5 minutes of hitting the water because of cold water shock.”

According to Duhe, the water does not need to be that cold. “It’s the difference between very warm air and colder water that triggers the reaction. At Lake Tahoe, cold water shock is a real danger every day of the year.”

Life jackets are the most important part of boating, but there are some other factors boaters should keep in mind, including:

  • A life jacket is the most important piece of safety equipment on a boat
  • Life jackets only work if one wears them
  • Children younger than 13 must wear life jackets by law while on a vessel in Nevada and California. That includes standup paddleboards, kayaks, personal watercraft and other water craft.
  • Drinking and boating is the same crime as drinking and driving
  • Paddling is boating and subject to the same rules and safety guidelines
  • Taking a boating education course is the best way to learn to boat safely. Online boating courses are offered at
  • NDOW has loaner life jacket stations across Northern Nevada including Sand Harbor beach and Wingfield Park in Reno at the Truckee River.

If boaters take just a few minutes to think about safety, they are much more likely to leave with only good memories.