Rachel's Journal
Read why it was so important to Rachel to be a boot camper and what she learned can save your life.

I first heard about “Cold Water Boot Camp” at the National Safe Boating Council winter board meeting back in January 2008. Cecilia mentioned the idea and noted – I believe as a joke – that anyone who was interested could be a “camper.” I spoke up instantly saying I wanted to be a “camper” that would jump in freezing cold water. I remember everyone in the room looked at me as if I were crazy, but in that moment I decided it was something I wanted to do.

A few weeks after the board meeting, I got a phone call from Ted Rankin asking if I was serious about participating in “Cold Water Boot Camp.” After explaining the process of the event, I was still interested, so he sent me the paper work to apply for the program. A few weeks later, I got a phone call from Ted congratulating me – I had been chosen as one of two women to be a “camper” for “Cold Water Boot Camp.”

As the time came closer to April 4th where I’d fly to Ohio, I didn’t think too much about what I’d be doing once I got there. My boss gave me the Alaska version to prepare myself for what lay ahead, but I threw it in my desk drawer and put the thought out of my mind. During the board meeting, there were clips of the Alaska version of “Cold Water Boot Camp,” and that was more than enough for me until I was actually looking down at Lake Erie.

I arrived in Ohio and, soon after, we were taken to Cecilia’s house to meet all of the people that would be part of “Cold Water Boot Camp.” Walking in her house, I thought “who are all these people?” I had expected there to be about ten people mulling around – including the other campers and a small production crew. After some introductions, I realized this event was going to be far greater than I had originally thought. As expected, most of the “campers” were there, some of the film people were there, but there were also people from the USCG station, there were the lifeguards and other safety personnel, and other people that I soon began to realize I would need to secure my safety throughout the next two days. During the evening, someone had pointed out that on the water was a solid sheet of ice. Sure enough, if you looked out onto the lake, it was covered in ice.

Saturday morning, we arrived at the USCG station and I couldn’t believe the set-up all around me. My pre-thought of “Cold Water Boot Camp” would be a few crazy people jumping in the water, a camera guy catching all the action, and one or two people ready to jump in if we needed to be saved. There were closer to fifty or more people there and there were tents on the beach, a huge arch proclaiming “Cold Water Boot Camp,” a helicopter, and even a hot tub for after our plunge.

On the beach, I remember the other boot campers stuck their fingers in the water and I just thought “Why would you do that?” I figured at this point in time, ignorance is bliss especially as I watched some pretty large slabs of ice being broken apart. It was pretty cool outside, but the sun was shining and there was no wind.

Before we jumped in the water, we did an initial interview where we were asked general questions including our name, career, and why we were there for “Cold Water Boot Camp.” I expressed the importance of life jacket wear and wanted to show what a difference I thought it would make in cold water.

Soon after, we drew numbers – I got number 4 out of 8 – and then we were asked to change into the gear we would jump into the water with – a sweat shirt and wind breaker pants. We were not allowed to watch those before us jump in, so I waited patiently and nervously until it was my turn to jump into the water. Soon enough, my turn came up. I was given an EKG before I left to go in the water to get a reading on my heart. On the walk out, I saw the person before me shivering but in seemingly good spirits. I thought “oh, well – he isn’t passed out, so I’ll be okay.”

I did a quick interview before going onto the dingy that would take me to the US Coast Guard boat that I’d be jumping off from. The sun was shining and there was very little breeze, but it was still chilly out. I arrived at the boat, climbed on and they explained that my rescue diver would be there beside me the entire time and pointed to the buoy that I was supposed to swim to. They told me to swim from the buoy back to the boat as many times as I could.

I remember standing on the edge of the boat, staring down at the water just thinking “Why did I think this would be a good idea?” They then told me I was free to jump at any time so I looked down one more time and jumped. My entire body felt a shock that was engulfed with cold. As I came back up and they said “start swimming,” my body had already begun to feel a little numb which, in effect, made me feel almost warm. I began the front crawl (usually my best stroke), but found that the clothes I wore were weighing me down and I didn’t feel like I was moving effectively compared to the energy I was using. I began to swim the breast stroke and put the buoy in my sights. I went to the buoy, turned back to the boat, and eventually began swimming back to the buoy. After a few times, Dr. Giesbrecht asked how I was feeling from the shore and told me I could start swimming back in.

After swimming to the shore, I got out and was hit by the air. Although it was a little warmer than the water, it felt colder and I instantly began shivering. Dr. Giesbrecht began to ask me questions about the swim and all I could think of was “Can you please stop asking me questions so I can sit down?” I felt cold, drained, and talking was an effort.

I walked over to the cart that would take me to the hot tub and was wrapped in a heat blanket and sleeping bag. As we rode back, I had one of the medical personnel say how everyone thought I was going to go down the quickest, but I had actually had the best time of the four people that had gone so far. Everyone figured that, because I was small and had very little body fat that I would not be able to swim very far in those conditions.

Before going into the hot tub, another EKG was conducted to see how my heart had been affected by the cold water. Shortly after, I went into the hot tub with all my clothes on. My fingers and toes started burning and it hurt to keep them in the water. After a few minutes in 100+ degree water, I began to feel warmer and, soon enough, I felt I was getting too warm and climbed out. After I got out of the water, I felt a little weak and laid down for a bit – I think the extreme changes in temperature confused my body that afternoon.

After I got home Saturday, all I could think was “I really don’t want to jump back in Sunday.” It was easy to jump in Saturday – I had no idea what to expect. On Sunday, I felt a little less naive about the situation and was not looking forward to it.

When we arrived, we did some filming in the classroom setting. Dr. Giesbrecht taught us about the misconceptions of hypothermia and the facts and brought a lot of information back to what we had experienced the day before. Dr. Giesbrecht then outlined the schedule for the day – there would be one group of two that would sit in the water for 60+ minutes to show how long it would take someone to become hypothermic, two groups of two would swim alongside one another with one wearing a life jacket and one not, and the last group would have to do a variety of tasks (such as setting off a flare, using a radio, etc.), before and after getting in the water. I opted to be a swimmer with a life jacket and would swim alongside someone without a life jacket.

Once it was my turn to get in the water, the directions were simple – jump in the same time as the swimmer without a life jacket and swim alongside her. When we both jumped in, she took a few seconds to get over the initial shock – I think that, because my head didn’t get wet due to the life jacket, I did not have to deal with that shock factor as much. Soon, we began swimming and she was almost immediately struggling. Within less than five minutes, she couldn’t swim any longer and was taken in the rescue boat. I was told to continue swimming until I couldn’t any longer. Over twenty minutes later, I was still swimming at a steady pace and could have kept going, but was told that the point was proven – wearing a life jacket can allow you a better chance of survival.

After I was taken out of the water, I once again went into the hot tub. This time, I eased myself in which was a lot less painful than just dunking in the day before. While in the hot tub, the girl I swam alongside and I were interviewed by a news station and I was able to share how my life was “saved” by wearing a life jacket a few moments before.

After everyone had done their part, we all did an exit interview that recapped the experience of the past few days. I expressed the importance of life jacket wear and how much of a difference it had made from the first day to the second day. Now that the experience is over, I feel I can better talk about the importance of life jacket wear, especially in a cold-water immersion situation. The experience was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do something truly unique that will also help save countless lives.