Paddling past the St. Petersburg Pier in the dark on a cold December morning several years ago, a wave broke over the bow of my sea kayak and sent a cupful of cold water into my lap.
In spite of the obvious discomfort, I didn't think much of it at the time and kept paddling. Little did I know that it was the beginning of the end.
Stroke after stroke, I labored on. The spray skirt that I had borrowed from a friend was designed to keep water out of the hull. But it was old and dilapidated, so every 10 minutes or so, a wave slightly larger than the rest would add a little more water to the puddle at my feet.
By dawn, I had accumulated several gallons in my sea kayak. So we pulled over near the Gandy Bridge, and I emptied the water from the kayak.
Shivering and unsteady, I stumbled around the beach for a few moments, then told my friends that I was ready to go. Five minutes later, paddling into a strong north wind, I capsized under the bridge.
Floating in 56-degree water, my tired and already hypothermic body teetered on the edge of shock. Fortunately, with the help of friends, I was able to get back into the kayak and make it to land.
Use your head
I should have acknowledged the signs of hypothermia earlier, but pride and arrogance kept me from doing so.
Uncontrollable shivering is usually the most obvious indicator of hypothermia, but personal experience has led me to conclude that one can begin slipping into the danger zone long before the body shows obvious symptoms.
When your body is performing some type of hard work, such as paddling a surfboard or kayak, its furnace is stoked and you will not feel cold until you stop what you are doing.
I knew on the beach that my body temperature was dropping, but it wasn't until I had trouble staying upright in the kayak that I accepted that I should have stopped and taken some precautions earlier.
In Florida's hunter-education classes, students are taught to look out for "slurred speech" and "irrational behavior" as early signs of hypothermia.
It is usually not one thing but a total breakdown of the decisionmaking process that results in death due to hypothermia.
It can happen to you
In my nearly 20 years on the outdoors beat, I have written about more than a dozen people who have died from the cold in the Sunshine State.
One case in particular stands out. In February 2005, eight teenagers from an exclusive Georgia prep school launched several canoes and kayaks near the mouth of Suwannee River, heading for a weekend camping trip on an island in the Gulf of Mexico.
The weather report warned that high winds were kicking up in the gulf. The water was getting choppy. Conditions: dangerous.
Within hours, the paddlers and their adult guides began to separate. One canoe lagged way behind. The next day, authorities found the bodies of two 14-year-old boys, victims of hypothermia.
Lots of layers
A lifetime spent outdoors has taught me to always dress for the cold. The secret is to layer your clothing. Start with a thin, synthetic material close to the skin that helps transmit water away from the body. Don't be afraid to pile on the layers of this high-tech long underwear. Light, easy to store, it keeps you warm even when wet.
Most of your warmth will come from your second (or third) layer of bulky fleece. Then finish off with a layer of wind/water-resistant material.
But if you still find yourself in an emergency situation, find shelter as quickly as possible and start a fire. Every emergency kit should include kindling, waterproof matches and some "napalm in a tube" that will burn even wet wood.
When fire is not an option, use emergency heat packs. Place one under each armpit and on the inside of each thigh. Wrap yourself in a space blanket and you'll warm up quickly.
Once you are dry and warm, break out your camp stove and boil water. Make yourself a hot cup of coffee and soon you will be ready to go.