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When the RMS Titanic sank, there were not enough life boats, many hundreds of people went into the cold water and many died from hypothermia.

The water temperature in the area where Titanic sank, which was well below normal, ... The coldness of the water was a critical factor, often causing death within minutes for many of those in the water. Source

A few apparently survived for several hours in the water

A small number of passengers and crew were able to make their way to the two unlaunched collapsible boats, surviving for several hours (some still clinging to the overturned Collapsible B) Source

What made it possible for those few to survive hours in water reported to be 28 °F (−2 °C)?

If I know my ship is sinking and I may be in cold water for several hours, what choices (type of clothing?) can I make that increase my chances of survival?

Related: How dangerous is swimming fully dressed in cotton/denim clothes?

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    During that time period a lot of winter coats were made of wool. Wool would have helped them stay insulated in the cold water. Also, if you're in still water, and not moving, your body will warm the water in direct contact with your body. This is why you're taught to huddle when you're in the water, to conserve body heat. – ShemSeger Mar 18 '18 at 18:39
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    Unless you have a wetsuit or drysuit laying around in those conditions your clothing is probably not going to matter enough. If you can find any way to stay above water and maybe even dry that would improve your chances massively. – Monster Mar 18 '18 at 18:41
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The US Coast Guard has done a number of studies too try and predict this and it looks like survival times can are highly dependent on the person and what they are wearing when all of the other factors are the same.

ST was reduced to 5.3 hours if the body fat level of the victim changed to “very lean,” and increased to 8.5 hours if the fat level changed to “very fat.” ST increased to 25.1 hours when the victim with medium body fat wore “Dry Suit, Double Pile, & Vest.” As noted above, clothing insulation increases ST significantly, thus, it is critical to pay attention to what clothing the victim might be wearing. ...

Individual differences in survival times are high. Even under similar conditions, some people survive only for a few hours, while other victims survive much longer. One factor affecting ST is body build, i.e., height, weight, and body fat percentage

...

Predicted STs demonstrated significant variance in the probability of survival. About 50% of the test population should survive hypothermia for 2.8, 5.0, 7.4, and 12.6 hours at water temperatures of 0°, 5°, 10°, and 15°C, respectively. At 0°C, ST varied from 1.2 to 3.8 hours. That range of predicted ST values appeared to be consistent with events during the Titanic shipwreck, where water temperature was near 0°C and virtually no survivors were present after 2 hours (29).

PROBABILITY OF SURVIVAL DECISION AID (PSDA)

From the same study, it also matters how much of the body is immersed with more immersion leading to shorter survival times.

Now, as one can't change their height, weight or body fat percentage at a moments notice, then all that leaves is getting more insulating clothes. In fact, there are drysuits designed specifically to keep a person from getting hypothermia.

An immersion suit, or survival suit (or more specifically an immersion survival suit) is a special type of waterproof dry suit that protects the wearer from hypothermia from immersion in cold water, after abandoning a sinking or capsized vessel, especially in the open ocean. They usually have built-on feet (boots), and a hood, and either built-on gloves or watertight wrist seals.

Source

If you don't have a immersion suit, do note that on page 20 of these recommendations for the Coast Guard, that any clothes are better than none and that only being partially immersed leads to much longer survival times.

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    No immersion suits nor wet or dry diving suits were available. The comment by @ShemSeger suggests wearing wool could have been a significant influeance Maybe include wool and/or modern sysnthatic equivliants in your answer? – James Jenkins Mar 19 '18 at 10:37
  • I'm amazed people could survive for hours . I would be wiped out by 5°C water in single digits minutes (let alone 0°C .. With just my feet in cold water I shiver uncontrollably and am very worried in about twenty seconds. – javadba Aug 5 at 11:41
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Any amount of insulation helps.

There are 3 main areas of heat loss. Head, sides of chest, and groin area.

Any form of fabric will work. Yes, even cotton. (Cotton's problem is when it's in the air.)

As an exercise try this:

While wearing a life jacket in the water, remove your belt, then put it under your knees and around your neck so that your your knees are held close to your chest. Do this in a way that allows you to duck out of it without having to fumble with the buckle. Clamp your arms to your sides. This doesn't work well if you have short belt (small waist) compared to your height.

Float like this for several minutes.

Undo the belt and move. You will notice a rush of cold, as you dissipate the warm water near your body.

Note: I did this experiment using a horse collar type life jacket, not the more modern vest type. Initial experiments should start with just hugging your knees to your chest to see that you float stably in that position.

If you find your self on a Titanic replay, look for a garbage bag. Dress as warmly as you can, then bite holes in the two bottom corners and the middle of the bottom, and pull it over your head over the top of your life jacket.

The holes will stretch open, but will be snug. Use your belt to fasten the bottom edge of the bag close to you, or tuck into your pants. If you can, tie the corners between your legs. Ideally drop your pants, tie between your legs, and pull your pants up.

This slows the water exchange between your clothes and the sea. The water warms up some, and your survival time lengthens.

A woollen hat with a bread bag over it also helps.


A garbage bag is a good piece of survival gear if you are in the mountains for the same reason. Test: On a winter day go outside with a bucket of water, dressed in a t-shirt. Get someone to pour the bucket over you. In a very short time you will be quite cold.

Put on your garbage bag. Instantly you feel warmer:

  • You've blocked the evaporation that was taking place from your wet clothing.
  • You've blocked the chimney effect of warm air next to your body rising away.
  • You've blocked the breeze.

Now this is not a panacea: A dry parka is certainly a better bet. But you can put a spare garbage bag in the bottom of every daypack you own.

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    I feel like this answer should have a disclaimer of the form: "Warning! Incorrectly attaching a belt around your knees and behind your neck has been known to the state of California to cause drowning in some individuals." – Loduwijk May 24 '18 at 14:24
  • @Aaron Some merit in that. The trials I did with this were using the old style horse collar life jacket that has more front floatation. But long immersion time in cold water is problematic at the best of times. The Cororner's Report on the Temiskaming incident in Canada ruled 'cold water induced drowning' All of the victims were wearing standard horse collar type life jackets that supported the neck, but once unable to move from cold they inhaled enough water from wave splash to drown. – Sherwood Botsford May 26 '18 at 12:50

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