Drownings rise in Lake Michigan

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Traverse City — An early spring after sparse ice cover on the Great Lakes last winter — along with near-record water levels — has caused a spike in the number of drownings this year, especially on Lake Michigan.

Swimmers are warned of rip currents along the shores of Lake Michigan at Holland State Park. Bob Pratt of Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project says the north-south wind patterns along the parallel shores of Lake Michigan increases waves and creates treacherous waters.

Drownings on Lake Michigan have almost matched the 23 recorded for all of 2015, according to Bob Pratt, executive director of education and a water safety educator with the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.

“The lack of winter ice allowed the waters to warm up more quickly than most years, along with a warm spring,” he said.

There have been 22 confirmed drownings as of late June, up 50 percent from the same time last year, he said.

Lake Michigan accounts for half of the 44 drownings in the Great Lakes this year, putting the five freshwater bodies on pace to surpass last year’s total of 53 deaths. Along with this spring’s fast warm-up, Pratt cited two other factors: wind patterns and the resulting surf on Lake Michigan, which make its waters treacherous, and the crowds the lake draws from the Chicago area and lower Michigan’s southern and western cities.

“We have north-south winds along the parallel shores of Lake Michigan which run over 307 miles; this increases wave size and action. It can be very dangerous,” Pratt said. “Combine that with the population density, and accidents occur.”

In one especially deadly weekend this summer, four drowning victims were pulled out of the lake from June 17-19, according to the surf rescue project. The victims included two swimmers near Chicago and two people who fell from boats, including 16-year-old Riley Hoeksema, who was thrown from a Zodiac-style inflatable hull boat when it made a sudden turn in the lake near Holland.

Ron Kinnunen of the Michigan Sea Grant program agreed Lake Michigan’s long coastline — 1,640 miles — and location help explain its propensity for swimming and boating tragedies.

“Over 1 million people live along the lakeshore in the southern part of the lake, and where there are river mouths, such as in Holland and Grand Haven, where there are piers and breakwalls,” said Kinnunen.

“Structural currents build on windy days, and swimmers and boaters often can get into trouble when caught in currents such as rip currents, long-shore currents, and structural currents,” he said. “Young people are attracted to high waves and sandy beaches and this can cause problems.”

Petty Officer 2nd Class Chris Yaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard’s Ninth District in Cleveland, said units have been responding to more rescue calls, though he didn’t have statistics. Yaw attributed the rise to the increasing popularity of paddlecraft.

“Combine weather patterns with currents, and add increasing use of kayaks and standup paddle boards, and you have dangerous conditions,” he said. “Federal law says all paddlecraft must have a personal floatation device, but the law doesn’t stipulate that the rider has to wear it. We highly recommend wearing your PFD.”

Since 2010, 482 people have lost their lives in the Great Lakes, according to Pratt. Only four of the drowning victims were wearing life jackets — less than 1 percent.

Safety issues are stressed at outfitters throughout the region. Sandy Graham of Backcountry North outfitters in Traverse City, who has kayaked all over the world on rivers, lakes, and oceans, says she talks to customers about risks.

“We talk about basic paddling and safety issues whenever someone comes in interested in a kayak,” Graham said. “We discuss basic paddling strokes, the basics like how to get back into your boat from the water, how to pump your boat, and upgrading your equipment. We try to prepare them for all of the ‘what-ifs.’ ”

Recommended to kayakers: Personal floatation devices, leashes for the paddles so they don’t float away, and flares or whistles.

Nationally, the Coast Guard recorded six drownings by paddlecraft users last year. The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project’s data for this year and 2015 don’t show any fatal paddlecraft incidents.

Powerboaters are also kept current on basic equipment and safety by Coast Guard inspections. Boaters in the Clinch Park Marina in Traverse City echoed the importance of safety gear.

Elena and Vitaly Mirothnik of Chicago were berthed in the marina Wednesday while traveling to Great Lakes ports with 10 other boats. Their 41-foot cruiser is equipped with all of the latest gear, from radios to life vests, and they stress safety.

“We never drink alcohol while underway,” said Elena Mirothnik. “We both are members of the Chicago Yacht Club and stress safe boating on all levels.”

Swimming has its inherent dangers as well. Rip currents and strong offshore currents can sweep a swimmer away.

Swimmers disregard red flag warnings on Lake Michigan at Washington Park beach in Michigan City.

Warren Rice, 4, was swimming Wednesday in Grand Traverse Bay, wearing inflatable arm bands as his mother, B.J. Rice, watched from close by. “We’re always prepared for any water trips; we try to be smart about safety,” she said. “My husband and I are both kayakers and use life jackets with whistles and other safety gear.”

The Coast Guard recommends several tips for water safety, including wearing a life jacket, having a reliable means of communication (sound device, waterproof cellphone or radio), filing a float plan, and taking a paddlecraft training/safety course before setting out on the water.

“Our motto at Backcountry North is ‘Stupid ought to hurt’ ,” Graham said. “We hope to correct that and educate everyone about safety on the water.”

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