The Gasp Reflex

Dec 8, 2017 Boating safety ,General Interest

Just like the man who made bottle tops, it wasn't as exciting as it sounds - and that's the trouble with safety. It's not always high on entertainment value, but I attended the day-long Boating Safety Conference at the Voyager Maritime Museum on 28 August 2014. It was a team effort from Coastguard Boating Education and Maritime New Zealand.


The star of the show was Rob Waddell, champion rower, former Emirates Team New Zealand grinder – read all about it on page 84. His was a tough act to follow, and Matt Claridge, CEO of Water Safety New Zealand, knew he couldn’t compete with a man who wore panic knives, oxygen tank, abseiling gear and a comms-fitted, anvil-tested helmet to work instead of jeans and a clean shirt.

Claridge’s task was to report on a report with the catchy title of: Behavioural analysis of human survival characteristics following sudden water immersion.

Water Safety NZ commissioned the report from Otago University. The researchers got a bunch of students, paid them money and dipped them like tea bags into a chilled swimming pool, so, really like iced tea bags.

Sometimes they had to swim hard against the current, which students usually choose to do anyway; at others they treaded water. At all times, readings were taken of breathing, blood, hyperventilation and a whole lot of other physiological readings and whether or not they gasped on initial immersion.

The gasp reflex got top billing. If suddenly immersed in cold water, you want to avoid the gasp reflex if you can – there’s more risk of inhaling water and just not keeping it together in those first few minutes while you get yourself organised.

Even though his base material was cold water, I actually enjoyed Claridge’s presentation so I ordered a copy of the report in its full, 53-page glory. I nearly drowned. Get this: “The analysis of decision making from the river scenario revealed no notable differences in agreement to the experienced river guide as a function of water temperature or ability level.”

I don’t know what that means. And I experienced that reaction throughout the report. My gasp reflex got a serious workout. This worries me, because if survival in the water depends on reading this report, only the really brainy people will make it.

The irony didn’t end there. Water Safety NZ had asked that the research include a study into the effects of alcohol on the human body while in the water. I’m sure the students would have been happy to get inebriated but the research team couldn’t get ethical permission to get the students drunk.

To be fair, the report on cold water wasn’t intended for general consumption, and there was much talk at the conference about several safety campaigns that have delivered clear messages. However I was interested in reading the report on the Behavioural Analysis of Human Survival Characteristics Following Sudden Water Immersion, and even disseminating it to our readership. It’s just that I couldn’t.

Happy boating.