As warm weather spreads across Minnesota, many bodies of water in the state are now free of ice. People are eager to hit the rivers and lakes for some early boating fun. 

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as many as 30 percent of all fatal boating accidents in Minnesota occur during this early season, known as the cold-water period. This means that it is vital for people out on Minnesota waters during this time to be extremely cautious whenever they are on or near the water. 

“Our boating season in Minnesota is limited, so we know people want to spend every moment they can on open water,” said Col. Rodmen Smith, director of the DNR Enforcement Division. “But even among the strongest of swimmers, a fall into the water in April is far more dangerous than the same fall in July because of the incapacitating effects of cold water.”

Boaters looking to begin their trips out on the water during the cold-water season should: 

  • Ensure their boat is equipped with proper safety equipment and that it’s all functioning properly.
  • Wear a life jacket (foam is more effective than inflatables during the cold-water season). A life jacket is the one thing most likely to help people survive a fall into cold water.
  • Distribute weight evenly and abide by manufacturer’s weight limits to reduce the likelihood of falling overboard.
  • Have a means of communication. Boaters also should let other people know where they’re going and when they plan to return.
  • Watch the weather to avoid shifting winds or storms.

Falls overboard and capsizing are still the most common cause of boating fatalities in the state. The cold-water makes these accidents even more dangerous. Over 30 percent of boating fatalities in Minnesota happen in cold water with a victim not wearing a life jacket.

Cold water immersion can kill in several ways, and most people die long before they become hypothermic. Falling into cold water creates an emergency response process within the body. The DNR created a timeline with suggestions on what happens and the best practices to ensure safe rescue of those that fall into cold water. 

Cold shock response takes effect Within the first 2 to 3 minutes:

Gasping, hyperventilation, panic.

Drowning if not wearing a life jacket.

Swim failure happens Within the first 30 minutes:

Rapid cooling of arms and legs impairs the ability to keep the head above water.

Effects occur regardless of swimming ability.

Drowning if not wearing a life jacket.

Immersion hypothermia occurs After at least 30 minutes of immersion:

Cooling of the body's core temperature results in gradual loss of useful consciousness.

Drowning if not wearing a life jacket.

Fight for survival

The DNR has developed a principle called the 1-10-1 to understand the best practices to take if you are immersed in cold water while boating on Minnesota waters. If you are wearing a life jacket, the 1-10-1 principle may save your life:

1 Minute

Get breathing under control

10 Minutes of meaningful moment

Assess the situation and make a plan.

Perform most important functions first, such as locating other party members.

Self-rescue if possible.

Practice emergency communications and signaling.

1 Hour (or more) of useful consciousness

Focus on slowing heat loss.

Stay with the boat

If the boat capsizes or the victim fall overboard, stay with the boat and try to reboard. Some important things to know if your boat capsizes or you are thrown overboard:

Most capsized watercraft will still float.

A craft in the water is easier for rescuers to locate.

If you have to remain in the water, do not attempt to swim unless it is to a nearby boat or floating object.

Keep boots and clothes on. Almost all clothing will float for an extended period of time.

While wearing a life jacket, float on your back with your head and feet out of the water. 

Slowing heat loss

Reduce the effects of cold water immersion by assuming the heat escape lessening position (H.E.L.P.). See the photo for an illustration.

HELP Position

The Heat Escape Lessening Position or H.E.L.P position that anyone immersed in cold water should take.  


  • Cross ankles
  • Cross arms over chest
  • Hands should be kept high on the shoulders or neck.
  • Draw knees to chest
  • Lean back and try to relax.

Practice H.E.L.P in a pool first, before depending on it in an emergency.

If more than one person is in the water and wearing a life jacket, the "huddle" is recommended. This is where small groups of two to four "hug" with chests closely touching. Arms should be placed around the backs of the others and kept underwater, while smaller individuals or children can be placed in the middle of the "huddle."


A visual of the huddle position that should be assumed by a group wearing life jackets that find themselves in cold water.  

The huddle helps to conserve body heat and it is also easier for rescuers to locate than one lone victim. The close proximity of victims can serve also as a significant morale booster.

Be a safe boater

The best way to prevent and prepare for an emergency on the water is to practice safe boating. The DNR has the following tips on how to enjoy the waters in Minnesota while still staying safe:

  • Wear a life jacket- Minnesota law requires a wearable U.S. Coast Guard Approved life jacket for each person on board a watercraft.
  • Prevent capsizing- Reduce speed in rough water, don't overload a boat, secure loads from shifting and adjust for changing conditions.
  • Prevent falls overboard- Remain seated while underway, avoid a sudden shift in weight.
  • File a float plan- Leave it with a responsible person. Include a description of your boat, names of passengers, boating location, time of return and description of your car and where it is parked. Tell the person to call 911 if you don't return at the expected time.
  • Brief passengers – Everyone should know where all safety equipment is ( and how to use it), and how to start, stop and steer a boat.
  • Be prepared- Always wear a life jacket every time you step on a boat. Trying to put your life jacket on in the water is extremely difficult (if not impossible) and costs precious time and energy.
  • Carry a whistle or horn- Minnesota law requires a whistle or horn on all motorboats 16 feet or longer.
  • Keep an eye on the sky- No boater should ever set out in a storm.
  • Boaters should also:
  • Carry a compass and chart.
  • Carry a cell phone or two way VHF marine radio. The U.S. Coast Guard monitors Channel  16.
  • Take a boater safety course.


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