Sunburn, heatstroke and exhaustion

Rowers spend a lot of time on the water, where the reflection makes the sun’s rays more powerful and there is often a breeze which cools the surface of the skin so that you don’t notice you are getting burnt; the clothing we wear in summer provides minimal protection. Just look around at the end of a summer regatta and you will always see many sunburnt shoulders and arms.
Painful though it is, sunburn may be the least of the problems: the same factors that cause sunburn also cause skin cancers. On hot days, if you do not rehydrate regularly and stay in the shade between races, your body can overheat leading to bad performance, dizziness, headaches and ultimately to life-threatening heatstroke. For rowers, this is commonest on regatta days and at training camps, but can happen on any hot day, and some people are more vulnerable than others.

It is important to take simple precautions, to recognise the symptoms – in yourself and others – and to react quickly when they occur.

1. Avoidance

Reduce your exposure to sun:
– Don’t spend too long in the sun, particularly at the start of the summer. Seek shade whenever you can, particularly when resting between races and when on the water waiting for the start
– Apply plenty of suncream (factor 30 or higher) on all exposed skin
– Wear a hat, preferably one with a wide brim which protects the whole of your face and neck
– Wear a lightweight, white t-shirt to cover your shoulders during training and at regattas when not racing
– Drink plenty of water throughout the day; take a water-bottle in the boat
– Wear good-quality sunglasses

2. Recognise the symptoms

Don’t wait until the skin is red: if your skin feels hot, it is burning. Press the surface of the skin: if the area you have pressed is pink rather than your natural skin colour, it is burning.

Heat exhaustion symptoms include tiredness, dizziness, headaches or getting ratty with your crewmates. More severe symptoms (possible heatstroke) include a raised pulse rate, heavy sweating even when you aren’t working, an intense thirst, and feeling or being sick. Monitor each other and notice if someone looks flushed or is behaving abnormally.

3. React

The most important thing is to get out of the sun and into a cool area, preferably indoors. Cool down by wetting the skin – just putting on some wet clothes can help greatly. Dangling your feet in the water is also good (provided you can find a shady place to do it). Drink water or a rehydration drink. But don’t cool down too quickly: if you are suffering from heat exhaustion it is not a good idea to jump into the river or to have a cold shower (but a warm shower should be fine).

If the person doesn’t very quickly feel better, seek help: there is a First Aid post at every event. At the Club, find a cool place to sit, and keep the skin moist. If the symptoms are more severe or do not improve you should consider calling 112.