Great Lakes drownings on record pace again

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

As waves of beachgoers descend on the Great Lakes' sandy shorelines this summer, officials are warning that fast currents are contributing to what could become a record year for drownings.

According to officials with the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, there have been 51 drownings in the Great Lakes this year, which is two more than this time in 2018, the record year. There have been 27 drownings in Lake Michigan alone — nearly twice the 15 fatalities in that lake this time last year. 

A no swimming sign is placed near the outlet of the Big Sable River in Ludington.

"It's a neglected public health issue, and I would probably stop short of saying it's a crisis," said Jamie Racklyeft, president and executive director of the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium, a nonprofit organization that advocates to end drownings and a rip current survivor.

"People always think it'll happen to someone else, that they know how to swim, but in reality, our rip currents are more than Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps can handle."

Over the weekend, water rescue crews located the body of Brian Herrmann, a 38-year-old who went missing Thursday after he, his wife and their two children were swept into Lake Michigan from the mouth of the Big Sable River at Ludington State Park in western Michigan. Herrmann, who was found Saturday eight miles away, was the second swimmer to fatally drown last week at the park northwest of Grand Rapids.

Deputies were able to rescue three of the four, including Herrmann's children, who were picked up in the Lake Michigan current Thursday.

South of Ludington in Ottawa County, a 43-year-old man, Steven Davis, fatally drowned Saturday after struggling in high waves and strong current in Lake Michigan. He was brought to shore after he entered the water while a red flag was flying nearby at Holland State Park, signaling that beach conditions were risky.

Nearby in Grand Haven, the wave conditions were so strong, they prompted officials to cancel the Coast Guard's Festival of Ships.

Warning efforts in Michigan and other states surrounding the world’s largest group of freshwater lakes come in the wake of record-setting 117 drownings in the Great Lakes last year, a 33% spike from the year before, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, which has been tracking drownings on the five lakes since 2010.

Dave Benjamin, executive director of public relations and project management for the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, noted 2019 is "on par to last year, which was the deadliest. It's not getting better."

A majority of the 791 drownings since 2010 have occurred in the waters of Lake Michigan, which has a greater population density surrounding the lake, with urban areas stretching from Milwaukee to Chicago to southwestern Michigan.

"Last year was a record year, and this year is tracking to be another record year, unfortunately," Racklyeft said. "Mainly because there are more swimmers. The economy is good, more people taking vacations, the weather is warm, water is warm and more people are heading into the water."

Meanwhile, drownings on Lake Erie have decreased to 11 fatalities compared with 17 this time last year. Fatalities on Lake Ontario decreased to six compared with 10 this time last year. There have been five drownings in Lake Huron, which is the same as in 2018, and two in Lake Superior over zero the previous year. 

Racklyeft said 80% of drowning victims are men, and especially young men, who often swim past the buoys into restricted sections.

Drowning is also the leading cause of accidental death in children ages 1-4 and second in kids younger than 15 years old, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. From 2005-14, there was an average of 3,536 fatal unintentional drownings (non-boating related) annually in the U.S. — about 10 deaths per day, according to the CDC.

Benjamin said waves account for only one-third of drownings.

"Waves and dangerous currents do cause drownings, the other 66% is simply people who allow themselves to be in situations with water over the head," he said.

Reasons for restrictions

Lake Michigan is not the same as swimming in a pool or small lake, Racklyeft says. Wind, waves, the slope of the beach, and other factors can cause dangerous currents to be present.

Rip currents move away from shore and are capable of overcoming even the strongest swimmer. They are considered dangerous and can occur at any beach with breaking waves. The most common mistake of those caught in a rip current is to panic and attempt to swim directly back toward the shore, Racklyeft said. Although rip currents can pull a swimmer away from the shore, they don't pull swimmers underwater.

"A lot of people still don’t think rip currents occur on the Great Lakes," he said. "They think it just happens on the oceans. The waves are usually larger on the ocean, but if you’re caught in the grip of the ocean, you may have 15 seconds in between breaks of waves. Waves are closer together on the Great Lakes and swimmers probably have five seconds to escape before you’re pounded back down."

The National Weather Service warned against swimming in Lake Michigan on Monday, but swimmers should see calmer water this weekend as meteorologists don't expect high waves on the lakes.

"Right now, it looks like we'll have high pressure with light winds around the Great Lakes looking around 10 mph or less through the weekend," said Dan Costello, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in White Lake Township. "It doesn't look like it's going to be a problem compared to last weekend, although it will be mid-upper 80s. Not much wave action, but people will be heading in the water."

► More: Coast Guard rescues 2 men from capsized boat on Lake Huron

The Case for Lifeguards

An informational kiosk with water rescue equipment is seen near the Big Sable River outlet in Ludington.

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.

Racklyeft says too many untrained beachgoers become would-be rescuers when someone is in trouble and there are no trained lifeguards, which puts others in additional risk.

"Community leaders interested in keeping people safe and preventing tragedies should invest in lifeguards, beach warning signage, loaner lifejackets, and rescue equipment stations," Racklyeft said. "All of these combined cost less than 24 hours of a search and rescue helicopter followed by dive teams to recover the body of a drowning victim who could have been saved by these preventative measures."

He says there's "a myth of liability" with the debate on having lifeguards at every beach. 

"Risk managers and state attorneys tell us that you are not liable for having a lifeguard trying to keep people safe," he said. "In fact, communities have been sued (and lost) for doing nothing rather than for trying to keep visitors safe with lifeguards and other basic safety measures. It is local city attorneys who too often advise to put up 'no lifeguard on duty' signs, which don’t save anyone."

Sean Mulligan, park supervisor of Holland State Park, said other efforts to reduce drownings are effective.

"For us, it seems to be happening less lately mainly because Holland's emergency services help and support us," Mulligan said. "City of Holland did videos about our red flags and more efforts are being done.

"Thankfully, so far, it seems to be having a positive impact, but sometimes people go in the water on red flag day or go where there are less people, and they put themselves in a bad spot."

At the beach

A red flag flies on Ludington State Park's designated swimming beach, indicating dangerous conditions.

"When in doubt, don’t go out," Racklyeft said. Here are tips from the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium.

  • Don’t just bring a lifejacket, wear it
  • Know before you go: Check the weather forecast for warnings at your beach.
  • Stay dry when waves are high: White water and waves as little as 2-3 feet can generate rips and other dangerous currents.
  • Steer clear of the pier: Most current-related incidents occur near structures. Stay away during high waves and never jump off or swim near them. 
  • Swim near a lifeguard if there's one on duty.

How to escape drowning:

  • Don’t fight the current: Even an Olympic swimmer can’t fight the force of a rip current. Swim to the side. 
  • Yell for help: As you get closer to drowning, you can’t yell anymore. Once you realize you’re in trouble, yell and signal for help. 
  • Flip, Float & Follow: Like Stop, Drop & Roll, this technique can save your life. Flip onto your back and don’t panic, Float to conserve energy and keep your head above water, and Follow the safest path back to shore. 

Saving others:

  • Save yourself first: Grab some sort of flotation (kayak, boogie board, etc.) before heading out into dangerous conditions. Try throwing something (life ring, soccer ball, cooler) from the shore or pier if possible. 
  • Be a water watcher and know the signs of drowning: Know that drowning doesn’t look like Hollywood portrays it with lots of yelling and splashing — it is usually swift and silent. 

What to do if caught in a rip current:

  • Remain calm. Remember, it will not pull you under.
  • Swim parallel to the shore until you break free, then swim diagonally toward the shore.
  • If you cannot swim out of the current, float until it weakens, then swim diagonally toward the shore.
  • Summon help by waving your hands.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_