Thursday, February 13, 2014

"Go jump in the lake." I believe I will, thank you.

A refreshing "Geronimo!"-shouted leap into Lake Erie on a day that started a tad on either side of zero is now high on my list of fun things to do in the winter.

Seriously, which is why this 64-year-old overweight and sloth-slow male took a polar bear plunge into a house-size opening in the 10-inch thick Lake Erie ice.

The maw of an opening was created by a machine that continuously percolates a jet-stream of rapidly churning water. This hole is located off a pier at the end of Cleveland's East 9th Street, east side.

Even more specifically, on government property owned and maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard.
When not being occupied from hole rim to hole rim by a large raft of merganser ducks, the Coast Guard uses the opening for cold-water survival and rescue training of its troops as well as personnel from various area fire departments and officers with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Watercraft.

I just hope the Coasties, fire-fighters and watercraft officers who participate in this ritual enjoy the experience half as much as I did.

Of course the jump into the deep was carefully orchestrated and executed with safety first, last and always. And it was done as a fun way to bring home the Coast Guard's message of cold-water safety, referred to in usual military acronym style as “ICE,” which stands for Intelligence (knowing the weather and ice conditions), Clothing (wearing clothing to prevent hypothermia from cold-water exposure), and Equipment (marine radio, life jacket, ice pick or screwdriver).

Those members of the media who were determined to execute either a tepid toe-first/butt last, a sit-and-slide, or even a running jump like me were all outfitted in what's called a floatation dry suit.

As the name more than suggests the material is waterproof and keeps one from sinking rock-style; either such a garment is a form of high-tech rubber alloy if you will or else some modern man-made fiber that never-the-less arrests penetration by so much as a molecule of water.

No question the suit first requires that the occupant slips on a cozy fleece union-suit. This step is followed by worming one's way into the suit itself so that the feet go first and then the arms and then a heaving hoist to snug the body.

Last comes a flip over the head, ears and much of the face with a fitted neoprene cap.

“Wearing a suit like this a person can stand up to one-half hour in cold water before beginning to become hypothermic,” said Executive Petty Officer Jeremy Cole.

Cole is stationed with the Coast Guard's Cleveland unit, a component of the service's Ninth District, which consists of the entire Great Lakes region and is headquartered also in Cleveland.

And how long can an unprotected person who panics expect something bad to begin to happen?

“About one minute,” said Robert Kollar, a Cleveland Fire Department lieutenant.

After that a person has about 10 minutes to clear himself of the water and no more than an hour – tops – before the body shuts down, officials participating in the joint training exercise and demonstration said.

Though most of the Coasties and other first responders who undergo this annual training seldom actually are called upon to utilize the skills it can happen. And does happen, too.

One of the personnel assisting the media said that in more than 15 years of being in the Coast Guard he's made just two winter/ice rescue missions.

Yet that is precisely the point of the annual and intense training, the Coast Guard personnel said as well.

With a training regimen that demands repetitive practice, if – or when – the day comes that the learned techniques are needed the responding personnel all will be able to react instinctively.

That's true for Coasties like Cole who hails from Panama City, Florida where the only ice he saw growing up was in a glass of tea.

And it's just as true for Coast Guard Boatswain-mate Julia Kinney.

Hailing from New York's Snow Belt region midway between Buffalo and Rochester, Kinney said she's well acquainted with snow and cold.

Perhaps that was why Kinney was the first one in and almost the last one out of the pool, so to speak, assisting the media and demonstrating various exiting techniques.

“You're doing fine,” Kinney said, grabbing my arms at the shoulders and sledding me across the top of the ice like I was some slippery harp seal.

“How did you like it?” Kinney asked, an almost fearful look on her face as if I'd be disappointed.

To be perfectly honest, I almost jumped back into the water. Yeah, it was that much fun.

For information about how to avoid such a life-threatening experience as well as how to survive one, visit the U.S. Coast Guard's web site at and search for “Think Twice With Ice.”

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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