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. 

Hypothermia or Death by Drowning? The Titanic.

I’m so pleased to host Paula Moldenhauer today at Redwood’s Medical Edge. It was 100 years ago that the Titanic sunk and there is still speculation on many fronts. Cause of death of the victims in the water reamains one of them.

What do you think–did those victims die from hypothermia or did they drown?

Welcome Paula!

“For forty-five minutes the eerie, distressed cries reached across the frosty depths, tugging at our very souls. Their words were unintelligible at this distance but not their agony. They cried with decreasing volume as the mass of dying humanity became a crowd, a cluster, and finally a solitary whimper.

The quiet that followed, may the gods help me, brought great relief. At first my tortured ears strained without permission, listening for that one more sound of life, but I knew it would not come. Not from those frozen corpses shrouded in darkness. Not from that bitter grave.

It was finally—mercifully—silent.”

                                                                        Excerpt from Titanic: Legacy of Betrayal

In the historical research for Titanic: Legacy of Betrayal, most first-hand accounts of survivors talked about the horrible sound of the victim’s screams that started as a roar and tapered off as those in the water were rendered unconscious or dead. 

Now, one-hundred years later, there is still some dispute over whether the majority of the RMS Titanic’s victims drowned or died from hypothermia.

Paula Moldenhauer

According to the Pacific Yachting Magazine, “Cold water carries heat away from the body 25 times faster than air of the same temperature and as a result, the body core immediately begins to lose heat to the outside environment. At first, the body tries to generate more heat by shivering, but this is not enough to offset the loss of heat to the water. Within 20 to 30 minutes, depending on water temperature, body core temperature drops to below 35° C (95° F) cognitive functioning and judgment become affected. This cooling, if not checked, leads to disorientation, unconsciousness and eventually death.”*

Still, most statistics tell us that most people die of drowning, not hypothermia. 

Maybe “Cold Shock,” the initial minute or two of exposure to cold water, provides an explanation. It signals a “gasp” reflex, which can cause serious problems if your head is under water. Next, you hyperventilate, your heart races, and blood pressure spikes. It’s hard to breathe and panic increases. In some people these symptoms cause cardiac arrest. Even healthy individuals can have difficulty keeping their head above water in such stressful situations!
Kathy Kovach

Cold Shock is followed by Cold Incapacity. During this time, “neuromuscular activity slows and body fluids literally congeal in the muscles.”* It becomes increasingly difficult to do anything that requires manual dexterity. Your hands and fingers stop working first, then the deeper tissues of the arms and legs cease operating properly. After ten minutes, they no longer respond to your will. Even experienced swimmers find short swims difficult or impossible. Without proper flotation equipment it is hard to keep your face out of the water and prevent inhalation.

If victims survive the first two stages, hypothermia sets in after 20-30 minutes of exposure. The body’s core temperature drops to 95 degrees F. Once hypothermia begins the victim’s clothing, body fat, and other factors come into play. On average, there is about another 30 minutes of “useful consciousness” left. 

According to PYC, “During this last period, it is still likely victims will die from drowning, unable to keep their airways above water as they slip into disorientation and unconsciousness. The only victims who actually die of hypothermia are those who have managed to keep their airways above water, even after unconsciousness, by securing themselves to floating wreckage or through the use of self-righting lifejackets.”*

Which brings us back to the RMS Titanic. Experts say Titanic’s life jackets kept victims afloat, but were not-self-righting. (You can learn more about this here.) Since survivors report hearing cries for help for 40 minutes to an hour despite the frigid 31 degree water, this seems to indicate that at least some of the victims were able to avoid drowning and succumbed to hypothermia.

Still, despite the obvious fact that that the RMS Titanic victims were in freezing water, the technical cause of death could still be drowning in most cases, as people lost the ability to keep their head above water.

Either way even now, 100 years later, I’m haunted by the thought of almost 1,500 people left in the water, crying for help.

(BTW, Here’s what to do to prevent hypothermia according to the Red Cross.)

*The direct quotes were taken from The Chilling Truth About Water. You can also find a chart there that breaks down survival times in cold water.

Paula Moldenhauer co-authored, Titanic: Legacy of Betrayal,with Kathleen E. Kovach. Author, speaker, and mom of four, Paula has published over 300 times. Her first two novels released in 2012. She serves as the Colorado Coordinator for the American Christian Fiction Writers and homeschools. Paula loves peppermint ice cream and walking barefoot. Her greatest desire is to be close enough to Jesus to breathe His fragrance. Her website offers homeschooling and parenting articles, devotionals, and information about her books. Visit her on facebook at:

The Death Chill 2/2

Today, we’re continuing with Ramona Richard’s two part piece on her personal experience with hypothermia. Her details are critical for getting the symptoms right.
Welcome back, Romona!

I’ve been soggy drunk, and I’ve had serious sugar lows. Those two experiences are the only ones I know that can compare to the sensation of having your body and brain stop talking to each other, then try to shut down completely. I wanted to sleep, but the divemasters wouldn’t let me. When I could finally walk without stumbling, they took me and my dive bag into the hold and told me to strip, dry off, and get into dry clothes. They turned their backs but wouldn’t leave me. Afterwards, they wrapped me in blankets head-to-toe and made me drink a lot of room temperature water.

The cold didn’t leave immediately. It lived on, deep in my muscles, for several hours, re-emerging ever so often in a chill and shudder. An unexpected cramp. I found that even walking carried a tinge of fear, as if the cold would return at any minute.
People who’ve never been through this have said to me, “Oh, you were just really cold.” No. I wasn’t just really cold. I felt deadened, frozen from the inside, helpless, non-functional, and terrified.
And one thing no one warned me about was the after effects. I don’t even know if this is medically proven, but it was my experience, and it might make for a good story element. I remain hypersensitive to cold, as if the hypothermia had messed up my internal thermostat. At times when I should have been “just cold,” I’ll become chilled and shaky, unable to regenerate my own warmth. Sometimes, at night, I’ll wake up shivering, and no pile of quilts is enough to stop the shaking.
One of the most memorable reoccurrence was in Gatlinburg, which is in the mountains of east Tennessee. I’d worn shorts during the warmth of the day. Then a friend and I had dinner, during which I’d drunk ice water. When we came out, the air temp had dropped from the 70s into the 40s, and within a few minutes, that familiar chill sank into my muscles. I started shivering and I couldn’t get warm. I grew angry and weak, and the walk back to our hotel became a series of short stops at shops, hotel lobbies, and bars while I warmed up enough for the next few yards.
Since that time, I watch the weather like a hawk, and I ALWAYS have blankets and water in my car, even in the summer. It changed other things for me as well. I dislike being hot, and had always preferred cold weather to warm (which is why I was snow camping). Now, I’m wary of it.
So why did I become hypothermic on one dive and not on the previous one? I believe it happened mainly because I was stupid. I drank too much alcohol the night before, slept little, and downed too many Sudafed, those little red pills my buddies on the boat called “diver’s candy.” All of it acted to dehydrate me – a prime set-up for hypothermia. Between that and the way water sucks heat out of your body, I became a self-induced victim.
Now, when I wake up shivering or feel that internal chill when I’m out, I know the solution is warm or room temperature water.
As a writer, I’ll someday work this into a plot. Mild hypothermia is perfect for slowing down your characters, without making them sick or injured. It’s great for making one character protective of the other, and a marvelous reason a hero and heroine must seek shelter together, yet be ready to go the next day. 
I’ve listed some links below that go into more detail about the different causes and levels of hypothermia. My case was mild—no frost bite, organ damage, or unconsciousness—because Rob’s brain kept working when my started to falter. To this day, I try not to think about what would have happened had I been deeper, or he’d been farther away…although that does put my romantic suspense brain into high gear…

Ramona Richards, fiction editor for Abingdon Press, started making stuff up at three, writing it down at seven, and selling it at eighteen. She’s been annoying editors ever since, which is probably why she became one. She’s edited more than 350 publications, including novels, CD-ROMs, magazines, non-fiction, children’s books, Bibles, and study guides. Ramona has worked with such publishers as Thomas Nelson, Barbour, Howard, Harlequin, Ideals, and many others.

The Death Chill 1/2

I’m so pleased to host amazing editor with Abingdon Press, Ramona Richards. Ramona has been a great supporter of this blog and she is sharing a first hand experience of hypothermia. I believe first hand accounts are invaluable when writing scenes where a character might experience these symptoms.

Welcome Ramona!

I didn’t realize I was in trouble. Fortunately for me, my dive instructor did.

I was about thirty feet underwater, still clinging to the anchor rope. For some reason, I couldn’t decide what I needed to do next. I felt perplexed and frustrated. And cold. The Gulf water temperature hovered at about sixty-five degrees, but we had dived the day before, so the chill of the water shouldn’t have surprised me. I’d certainly not had any trouble yesterday. But now . . . why did I feel so cold? I shuddered lightly.

Someone tapped on my tank, and I turned. When I did, a deeper chill shot through me and I shivered hard. Rob, my instructor, floated a few feet away, his face scrunched in concern. He held up one hand, his thumb and forefinger touching, making a circle. Are you OK?
I frowned, not understanding why Rob was concerned, and his eyes widened, eyebrows arching behind his mask. I shivered again, harder and longer. I could no longer feel any warmth in my wetsuit or muscles, and my fingers tingled, going numb. Confusion about what to do, how to respond, clouded my brain.
Rob signaled frantically. Up! UP! When I didn’t respond, he shoved me upward and reached for the valve on my vest, causing it to inflate. I was going up, whether I liked it or not.
We had only been in the water a few minutes, so there was no need for the 15-foot safety stop. Rob put me on the surface, and spit out his regulator, ordering me to grab the rope that trailed along the side of the boat. I tried to swim toward the back of the boat, but my legs didn’t want to pump.  My hands wouldn’t close on the rope, and the iciness of a walk-in freezer cut into every muscle. I felt totally helpless, and I’d begun to shake so violently that terror finally pushed through my confusion.
Behind me, Rob bellowed at the divemasters, “We have to get her out of the water!” He pushed me to the ladder at the back of the boat, and I suddenly felt several strong hands grab my tank and vest and haul me onto the deck. By now, I’d ceased functioning. I couldn’t stop shaking, and I felt inexplicably exhausted and sleepy. My legs refused to support me, and only a few words emerged, jumbled and slurred. I barely comprehended that I was being tugged along the deck toward the front of the boat. There the divemasters turned a warm shower on me, and began to remove my gear. They got me up on a bench and braced me while the shower poured lovely warmth inside my wetsuit.
I finally pushed out a halfway coherent, “Wha—?”
“You’re hypothermic. Sit still. When your suit gets warm, we’ll get you out of it and into some warm blankets.”
That took awhile. My hands and feet were bluish, and I couldn’t put words together, much less utter them through lips that felt numb, swollen, and useless. It was as if my entire face and my hands had been deadened with Novocain. After which I’d been locked in that walk-in freezer for a few hours.
I had never experienced this kind of penetrating, overwhelming sense of cold. And I’ve been cold. I once broke my ankle snow camping and had my socks freeze on my feet overnight. Been lost in an icy winter rain with only a jacket. But nothing prepares you for the helpless feelings that arrive with hypothermia.


Ramona Richards, fiction editor for Abingdon Press, started making stuff up at three, writing it down at seven, and selling it at eighteen. She’s been annoying editors ever since, which is probably why she became one. She’s edited more than 350 publications, including novels, CD-ROMs, magazines, non-fiction, children’s books, Bibles, and study guides. Ramona has worked with such publishers as Thomas Nelson, Barbour, Howard, Harlequin, Ideals, and many others.