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How to Help Yourself Survive in Cold Water: The 1 – 10 – 1 Principle

Sadly, stories are rolling in of boats foundering and sinking with crewmembers thrown into frigid winter waters. The Coast Guard and Good Samaritan vessels courageously assist as many survivors as possible, but the 1-10-1 Principle can help you survive until a boat or helicopter arrives. All of the following time averages are dependent upon the temperature of the water and condition of the victim.

1 – 10 – 1 represent crucial time periods after you hit the water.

1: During the first minute, Cold Shock will set in, including gasping and hyperventilation. You must get your breathing under control and gain an awareness of your situation. Panic will dramatically decrease your chance of survival.

10: You have 10 minutes to move to a secure position or find something that will keep you afloat as long as possible. Stay there and wait for rescue. Cold Incapacitation sets in after 5-15 minutes. Your limbs won’t move anymore so you won’t be able to swim, for example; you’ll lose your strength and coordination and won’t get them back.

1: Hypothermia will set in at 30 minutes to one hour. You then could lose consciousness. You could still survive if your airway has remained protected so you don’t drown (for example, if your flotation device holds your head above water). Finally, your heart will stop.

I hope I never have to test my courage and skills with the 1 – 10 – 1 Principle, but I’m glad to know it.

For these and more tips to keep you safe on the water this winter, please visit the Coast Guard Compass blog at