The Detroit News - - Front Page - Greg Tasker is a Michi­gan-based free­lance writer.

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 safe­t­y­minded 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/sel­f­res­cue 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-yearold 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.”


Dale G. Young / The Detroit News

Beach­go­ers and oth­ers, ex­perts say, are of­ten un­aware of the sea-like char­ac­ter­is­tics of the lakes, and how quickly surf con­di­tions change.

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