Michigan mission: Reduce drownings
As waves of beachgoers descend on Lake Michigan’s sandy shoreline this summer, efforts are underway to make this season less deadly.
Resort towns, parks and water safety groups are pumping up education and other plans to keep swimmers safe after a record number of drownings last year in the Great Lakes.
Efforts range from the city of Holland, home to one of Michigan’s busiest lakeside state parks, promoting a public service video about the dangers of ignoring surf warnings to more extensive lifeguard training in New Buffalo to a first-ever water safety expo at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
In addition, nonprofit groups, such as the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, have been teaching school children of all ages about water safety and what to do in the event of a potential drowning.
“There’s been a real push in education the past couple years because the statistics are increasing,” said Sue Jennings, a wildlife biologist at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan. She also serves as a peer counselor for staff and visitors in times of tragedies or rescue operations. The park had three drownings last year.
“You know there have been drownings over the years, but it’s not until you start adding them up that you go, ‘Wow,’ ” she said.
The efforts in Michigan and other states surrounding the world’s largest group of freshwater lakes come in the wake 99 drownings in the Great Lakes last year, an 80 percent spike from the year before, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, which has been tracking drownings on the five lakes since 2010.
There have been 34 drownings in the Great Lakes this year — 17 of which were in Lake Michigan. A majority of the 571 drownings since 2010 have occurred in the waters of Lake Michigan, the deadliest of the Great Lakes.
The reasons for the higher number of drownings in Lake Michigan include the population density surrounding the lake, with urban areas stretching from Milwaukee to Chicago to southwestern Michigan.
The lake, the third largest of the Great Lakes, also draws millions of tourists to its beaches, resort towns, parks and boating activities. Most of the Lake Michigan drownings have occurred in the southern portion of the lake.
Lake Michigan poses more problems than the other lakes because of prevailing winds from the west hit the shoreline and help create dangerous currents. Beachgoers also are urged to stay off piers and other structures in the water.
“People look at a lake like it’s a playground,” said Dave Benjamin, executive director of public relations and project management for the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, which also offers open water rescue training and certification for lifeguards and works with family and friends of drowning victims to advocate water safety.
“If you go to a playground that is water and you don’t know that drowning is one of the leading causes of accidental deaths in the country and the world, then you may be less safety-minded and less diligent watching the water while you’re there. And then things happen.”
Pay attention to flags
Beachgoers and others, experts say, are often unaware of the sea-like characteristics of the lakes and how quickly surf conditions can change. Sustained winds and rolling waves, along with structural obstructions, can create dangerous currents, even along the shoreline.
Frequently, swimmers ignore Michigan’s flag-warning system, which lets beachgoers know when it’s safe to swim. A red flag means stay out of the water and on the beach.
Benjamin, who has become an advocate of safe water education since surviving a near drowning while surfing on Lake Michigan near Portage, Ind., in December 2010, said about one-third of all drownings in the Great Lakes are related to dangerous currents. The other two-thirds are related to other factors, such as victims finding themselves in deep water after jumping off piers or watercraft capsizing. Sixty-six percent of all drowning victims were good swimmers.
Another organization working to promote water safety in Michigan and other states is the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium, whose sole mission is to “end drowning.”
“We are working with communities all around the Great Lakes,” said Jamie Racklyeft, president and executive director of the organization and a rip current survivor. “It really rocks a community when you lose someone in a drowning accident.”
Racklyeft nearly drowned while swimming at a familiar beach, Van’s Beach in Leland, in 2012. He got caught in a rip current on a “beautiful, hot, sunny summer day.” He remembers waves continually knocking him down and believed he was going to drown. He awoke to hear muffled voices on the beach. He was rescued by a pair of strangers who commandeered a kayak and paddled out to him. A 16-year-old boy who got caught in the same rip current drowned.
“This is why I do this,” Racklyeft said. “I do it for that boy and his family and for other victims’ families. I was lucky. I know what that boy was feeling.”
Parallel escape route
Advocates are promoting a simple water safety technique: “flip, float and follow.” It’s similar to the fire safety technique: “stop, drop, roll,” essentially taught to all children. Swimmers caught in a current should flip on their backs and remain calm. Floating keeps their head (and mouth) above water and conserves energy. Follow the safest path out of the current — swim parallel to shore or float.
“When you ask people what to do in a fire, they know. You ask them the same thing about a shooting or an earthquake, they know. But when you ask about drowning, they don’t know. There’s silence,” the national park’s Jennings said.
The Sleeping Bear Dunes Water Adventure Expo this month included the U.S. Coast Guard, water safety groups and other agencies looking to educate the public about drowning survival strategies, mock capsize/self-rescue exercises, rip current recognition and life-jacket fittings. The park is popular with swimmers, kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders. The expo came after three people drowned at the park last year; one was a 21-year-old man whose body was never recovered.
“This was particularly tragic because it was so preventable,” said Jennings, noting the man had been kayaking when the vessel became swamped by water. The victim had a cushion but no life jacket.
“The (victim’s) family wanted to get the word out. None of us are saying don’t swim in a Great Lake. Just know what the hazards are and when not to go out in the water.”
In Holland, the city and a collective of community groups this month released a video to educate the public, especially teenagers, about the dangers of swimming in the lake.
Like at other state parks, Holland State Park uses the state Department of Natural Resources’ flag-warning system. The signs were updated last year and the flags were reshaped from triangles to larger rectangles; color names also are embroidered on the flags so colorblind beachgoers can read them. Signs in southwest Michigan also include Spanish.
“It’s a constant concern,” said Marianne Manderfield, a spokeswoman for the city of Holland. “A lot of people don’t realize how powerful the lake can be. It doesn’t matter how strong or how good of a swimmer you are.”
Mike Evanoff, safety officer for the parks and recreation division of the state Department of Natural Resources, said the flag-warning system is in place at all state parks along the Great Lakes.
Some beaches also have posts with life jackets and rescue equipment available; there are no lifeguards on duty at the parks.
Kenneth Hawkins, a Traverse City resident who considers himself a fair swimmer, frequently swims at the beaches along Lake Michigan at Sleeping Bear and near Leland, as well as Grand Traverse Bay. He’s noticed warning signs about rip currents and the flag-warning system.
“I’m not going to go in the water if it’s dark and windy or if the waves are high or crashing into the pier,” the 35-year-old health care worker said. “I imagine a lot of tourists come up here and have no experience with big water. It’s easy to get nervous if something happens, especially if you don’t have a life jacket on.”
Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.
At the beach
All state parks with designated swim areas use the flag-warning system. Beachgoers should check the flags when they arrive and be aware of what each color means. They should also check the warning system throughout their stay; wave and current conditions can change quickly.
■Red = STOP. Stay out of the water and on the beach.
■Yellow = CAUTION. Watch for dangerous conditions and high waves.
■Green = LOW. Swim or wade but remain aware of changing water conditions.
Source: Michigan Department of Natural Resources