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Great Lakes swimmers warned to be aware of rip currents

John L. Russell
Special to the Detroit News

Manistee — As Metro Detroiters flock to the west side of the state for a summer getaway, more communities are warning swimmers unfamiliar with rip currents on Lake Michigan.

A yellow flag warns of the possibility of rip currents along Lake Michigan's First Street Beach in Manistee on June 20. Manistee no longer has lifeguards.

With summer and hot weather comes the wind, and currents along the long coastlines of the Great Lakes can become deadly. Add to that higher water levels that are changing the lake bottom near the shore and creating potentially dangerous situations where none existed before.

“The shoreline changes daily,” said Dave Bachman, director of public safety for the city of Manistee. “Currents along our beaches can become very dangerous.”

Manistee is one of a number of communities that have initiated a flag system to warn beachgoers of dangerous situations. The city no longer has lifeguards along Lake Michigan, but the warning flags for rip currents warn swimmers about dangerous currents caused by winds.

“We use Beach Hazard Statements issued by the National Weather Service, and our public safety officers check the lake daily before we issue a flag warning,” Bachman said.

The systems are at the First Street and Fifth Avenue beaches, on either side of the piers and the mouth of the Manistee River. Orchard Beach State Park, just north of the city, also has a flag warning system for campers and visitors which is updated daily.

St. Joseph, in southwest lower Michigan, has placed warning signs on their beaches, according to Colleen Rutter, an administrative assistant in the Berrien County Sheriff’s Office’s Marine Division.

“We have a lot of out-of-state visitors to our beaches,” Rutter said. “We need to continually inform everyone of changing conditions for their safety.”

Leland also has placed signs on Lake Michigan beaches, according to Sheriff Mike Borkavich, along with nearby Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, where 1.6 million visitors are expected this year.

Rip currents, one of the most dangerous currents in the lakes, form when waves break over the shallow bottom of the lake near the shoreline, building momentum. Pressure is relieved when the rip current forms on the shore and returns the water back offshore, into the lake. The current can run up to 5 mph, more than twice the speed of an Olympic swimmer.

The powerful current will not pull swimmers under water, but could take them out into open, deeper water away from shore, possibly carrying them to their deaths.

“My wife and I are pleased to learn of the warning system,” said Bill Erickson of Elk Rapids who was in Manistee recently. “We have our grandchildren visiting from Virginia in July, and will heed the warnings when we travel to Lake Michigan. It’s nice to know the information is getting out for the safety of the public.”

Flag colors range from green, meaning go swimming but watch conditions, to yellow for caution, watch for rip currents, and red, stay on the beach and out of the water. Conditions can change rapidly as wind and currents move or change direction.

Money for the equipment comes from donations and grants.

The Michigan Sea Grant Program has been helping cities and villages with signs and warning systems. The number of beaches with some sort of information is expanding yearly, with signs, flag systems, and life rings and rescue equipment being placed along beaches known for dangerous currents.

Ron Kinnunen, an MSU extension educator from Marquette, began researching rip currents in 1998 when a young man drowned off US-2 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“No one knew much about the dangerous currents that occur along our shorelines, and the loss of this young person created a model for the entire Great Lakes, with rescue boxes and equipment being placed in popular swimming areas where currents can become dangerous,” Kinnunen said.

According to Scott Rozanski, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gaylord, warnings are issued from several NWS offices around the state, taking into account wind direction, wave action and other conditions.

“We watch how the waves pile into the shore, water piles up and rushes back out, creating currents that can sweep a swimmer out into the lake,” Rozanski said.

Two people drowned this month in Marquette in Lake Superior at Little Presque Isle when strong currents swept two women out into the lake. A man tried to help them but he was also swept out into the deeper water. One woman was rescued, but the man and other woman drowned.

If caught in a rip current, experts say to stay calm, swim parallel to the shore and head to the beach when the current no longer pulls you. If tired, float and yell for help.

Grand Haven, with two piers and the Grand River mouth along the beach, has placed life rings with alarms, according to Lt. Clinton Holt, a training officer with Grand Haven Public Safety.

“We have a camera system and alarms, which when activated send an alarm and images to response teams,” Holt said. “We also stage rescue equipment and crews in strategic places along the shore when the winds build.”

Rescue teams also train at least twice a year with the U.S. Coast Guard.

Average drowning incidents per year on all of the Great Lakes tell the story, with Lake Michigan and its 300-plus miles of shoreline running north to south the most dangerous. Lake Erie averages 2.4 fatalities a year; Lake Huron, one fatality; Lake Ontario, 0.6 fatalities; Lake Superior, 0.8 fatalities; and Lake Michigan, 5.9 fatalities per year. Not all were from rip currents.

John L. Russell is a writer and photojournalist from Traverse City.