Drowning deaths on the rise

Area beaches — like First Street Beach in Manistee — are a popular place for recreation in the summer, but experts say people should be careful in and around the water. (Jane Bond/News Advocate)

Area beaches — like First Street Beach in Manistee — are a popular place for recreation in the summer, but experts say people should be careful in and around the water. (Jane Bond/News Advocate)

Officials offer tips on staying safe in Lake Michigan

FRANKFORT — The number of drowning deaths in Lake Michigan rose dramatically in 2016, and 2017’s numbers are already starting to climb.

According to statistics collected by the Great Lakes Surf and Rescue Project, 46 people drowned in Lake Michigan last year, nearly double the drowning deaths of the three previous years. It was the worst year for Lake Michigan drowning deaths since 2012, when 50 people drown in the lake.

Data from the rescue project shows drowning deaths in all of the Great Lakes are on the rise, but Lake Michigan has consistently had the highest numbers of all lakes as far back as 2010.

So far, 17 people have drowned in Lake Michigan this year.

“On average, about a third of all Great Lakes drownings are related to waves and dangerous currents,” said Dave Benjamin, executive director of public relations and project management for the rescue project. “The number will change from year to year. When looking at statistics, especially earlier in the year, we may not know the cause. All we know is people somehow end up in the water. Sometimes it happens and nobody is around to witness it.”

Benjamin said drowning is a “conflux problem.”

“Many factors are involved, but there are a few things we’ve been looking at for a while,” he said. “People just don’t understand water. Water safety is not common sense, but people assume it is; even the people who are drowning. You can speak to parents, teachers or the general public, and they say they already know how to swim. Statistics show 66 percent, two-thirds of drowning victims, were good swimmers. Knowing how to swim does not equal protection from drowning. There is a big difference between knowing how to swim, and knowing how to survive if you get into trouble.”

(Courtesy graphic)

(Courtesy graphic)

Some solutions are simple, according to Benjamin. Wearing proper flotation devices when out on the water is one way to cut down the number of drowning deaths.

Michael Scott, member of the coast guard auxiliary, working with the Frankfort Coast Guard Station, said less than 1 percent of fatalities occurred when the victim was wearing a life jacket.

“Any time somebody is on the water, unless swimming under supervision of a lifeguard, or anytime a person is near the water, we encourage people to wear a life jacket,” Scott said. “Nobody knows when they’ll need one until it is too late to put it on.”

Knowing how to survive in the water without one is another solution.

“We advocate the flip, float, follow strategy,” Benjamin said. “It is like the stop, drop and roll of water safety. If people think they are starting to drown, they need to remain calm and flip onto their backs and float. Just keep your head above water and keep your chest at the water level. Floating can calm people down. When people panic, they exhale more, and they deflate their lungs and lower their natural buoyancy. Floating also conserves energy. Once you are floating and calm, find the safest route out of the water.”

Being aware of the dangers involved when recreating on, or in, Lake Michigan, also can help people avoid tragedy.

“Rip currents have been a growing concern on the Great Lakes; they’re a hidden danger,” Scott said. “People get caught and pulled offshore, and the instinct is to swim against it, but that is counterproductive.”

Instead, Scott advises people to drift with the current until it stops, or swim perpendicular to it to get into still water faster, then find a safe route to shore.

Rip currents are formed by wave action and the contour of the lake bottom. As waves push more and more water onto the shoreline, the force of the water trying to flow back becomes stronger, and eventually overpowers the force of the waves pushing to shore. As the water pulls back to the lake, if there is a slight trench in the sandbars on the bottom of the lake, the flow channels through them, and creates a strong current outward.

“Rip currents don’t flow out really far,” said Larry Bordine, a marine and mechanical engineer with a specialty in fluid dynamics. “If you know it, are familiar with it, it is easy to get out of, and spot and avoid. If caught, and you don’t know what to do, then it’s a big deal.”

Bordine, who also owns the Beach Nut Surf Shop and spends time surfing at the beach in Frankfort, said people who know what to look for can see where there are likely to be rip currents, and that the beach at Frankfort could see increased current activity this summer.

Signs at First Street Beach in Manistee warn swimmers of rip currents that can carry even strong swimmers away from shore, if they do not know how to escape. (Jane Bond/News Advocate)

Signs at First Street Beach in Manistee warn swimmers of rip currents that can carry even strong swimmers away from shore, if they do not know how to escape. (Jane Bond/News Advocate)

“What’s changed in Frankfort is there has been high water, and last year, it washed out some of the dunes down the beach,” he said. “When all that is washed out, it reshapes the sand bars, even though a lot of sand gets pushed back up onto the beach. It looks normal from shore, but the sandbars have changed. A lot of surfers have noticed it. The shape of the waves are changing because of it, and a lot more whatever is moving out under the surface.”

Bordine said he and others have had difficulty coming into shore, even when riding waves, and that while he and other surfers know how to handle the situation, others might panic if they don’t know what to do.

He also said people can spot areas where there may be a rip current, either observing thin “rivers” of sand and debris being pulled out into the lake, or by observing places where waves don’t naturally break when coming to shore; a possible indication of a deeper channel in the sandbar.

Both Bordine and Scott also say the pier structure at Frankfort, or anywhere else, also can be dangerous.

“If people are going out on the piers, pay attention to the weather, because there are frequently times when the waves are washing over the top of the break wall, and they can have an unexpected strength to push people off balance or off the side of the break wall if they are not careful,” Scott said. “The advice would be to pay attention to the local environment. Check the weather. If you’re supervising children, know where they are and make sure they know the dangers.”

Bordine said people jumping off the pier could be caught in an eddy current pulling water out and around the pier, or be pulled away from the structure due to the back flow from waves hitting it.

Rob Lozowski, chief of police for the City of Frankfort, said there is a simple saying for staying safe on the pier.

“High waves, stay away,” Lozowski said.

 

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