Surviving a Shipwreck Post Hurricane

Jocelyn Asks

I’ve written a hurricane scene, and I don’t think I got the medical details right, so I thought I should check with you.

I have characters abandon their ship as it goes down. They stay afloat using planks of wood, but just holding on to them in the water, not lying on top of them. This takes place in the Gulf of Mexico in September.

When they are rescued several hours later, what will their condition be? Will they be fully conscious? Would they be cold? My heroine’s brother dies in the water, so is that enough to put her into shock, along with the ordeal of surviving the hurricane?

While one character is floating in the water, a piece of bowsprit breaks off from another ship and flies through the air, hitting him. I want to injure him enough for him to lose his grip on the plank he’d been holding onto, but I don’t want him to die from this injury. I was thinking if the wood hits him in the arm or shoulder, either breaking his arm or dislocating his shoulder, that would be good enough. Is that realistic though? Or does it just depend on the angle and the velocity?

Jordyn Says:

First thing to determine is the temperature of the water in the Gulf of Mexico in September. I found a table from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with water temperature tables for the Gulf of Mexico  that lists temperatures for September in the mid to upper 80s.

The next question is how long does it take hypothermia to set in when you’re submerged in water at this temperature?

This table gives an “indefinite” time frame where as it lists time limits for cooler water temperatures. For instance, in water that is 32.5 degrees, it gives a time of under fifteen minutes for exhaustion or unconsciousness to set in.

Considering this information, your characters should be conscious when they are rescued. Just because they don’t die from hypothermia doesn’t mean there aren’t other risk factors like getting eaten by ocean creatures, sheer exhaustion, or dehydration and malnourishment from not eating or drinking.

If the rescue is under twelve hours, I’d imagine they would be in pretty good shape. An adult can probably survive three days without water but it would also depend on what environmental factors are present. You’ll dehydrate faster in sunny weather than a cool, overcast day. I would imagine they would still feel cold. Your normal body temperature is 98.6. Hot bath water ranges from 99-104 degrees. Bathwater temperatures vary depending on the source and hot tubs are around 104 degrees. So, being immersed in 80 degree water will still feel cool. Patients getting room temperature IV fluids always get chilly.

Emotional traumas like the death of a loved one AND surviving a cataclysmic weather event can put someone into shock.

I think it’s reasonable to give your character a fracture after being hit by the bowsprint. But then he’d be unlikely to use that arm at all to hold onto things but it should be a survivable injury if a closed fracture and the rescue is fairly soon. I would think an open fracture, where the bone comes through the skin, would put him more at risk for complications and lower his survivability if the rescue is delayed by a few days or more. 

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