Water recreation can be fun, but also dangerous

High winds can cause waves to crash over the pier at First Street Beach, causing a hazard to anybody walking on the structure. (News Advocate File Photo)

High winds can cause waves to crash over the pier at First Street Beach, causing a hazard to anybody walking on the structure. (News Advocate File Photo)

FRANKFORT — While people turn to the water to get relief from the summer heat, it can also be dangerous, especially on Lake Michigan.

According to statistics from the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, more people drown in Lake Michigan each year than any of the other Great Lakes. In 2017, 40 people drown in Lake Michigan. This year, seven have drown so far.

Adrian Ledesma, petty officer at the United States Coast Guard station at Manistee, says there are things people can do to stay safe on and in the water.

“The big message the Coast Guard wants to get out, especially when it comes to boating, is wearing a life jacket increases the odds of surviving six to seven times,” Ledesma said. “Statistics show 84 percent of drowning victims last year were not wearing life jackets.”

He said life jackets need to fit, and people need to be wearing them. He also said the Coast Guard and other law enforcement agencies sometimes stop boaters and check to see if there are an adequate number of life jackets on the boat, and can write fines and send people back to shore if there are not.

Ledesma said alcohol is also a factor in drowning incidents.

Signs warning beachgoers of the risk of rip currents at First Street Beach also explain what to do if caught in a current. (News Advocate File Photo)

Signs warning beachgoers of the risk of rip currents at First Street Beach also explain what to do if caught in a current. (News Advocate File Photo)

“Especially with the July sports season coming, we see more people boating under the influence,” he said. “Around 19 percent of boating related fatalities involve alcohol. It lowers the ability to make good judgment when operating watercraft, and hinders your ability to survive if you find yourself thrown in the water.”

He said people should limit their alcohol intake while doing any recreational activity involving water, not just boating.

Ledesma also recommended using the buddy system.

“It is a good idea to have somebody with you, so if you get in trouble, get hurt or have an accident, they can help out and call for emergency assistance,” he said.

Having a float plan is also important, especially if going alone. Ledesma said people should leave a note telling friends or family where they are going, what they are doing and when they expect to be back. He also suggested listing a description of the boat and clothing being worn.

“If something does happen, people know when you are due back, and know when and where to start looking for you,” he said.

Ledesma said Lake Michigan, because of its size, can generate large waves, and to be especially careful when boating or swimming. He recommended checking the weather before going out.

People can be swept out into the lake by high waves, or swept off structures like piers. If there are high winds and waves, stay off the piers.

Rip currents can also pose a problem, even on seemingly calm days. 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.

Unless swimmers know what to look for, rip currents can be unseen dangers lurking just offshore. The action of the waves will pull a swimmer out into the lake, and swimmers can tire quickly trying to fight the pull.

The best way to get out of a rip current is to drift with the current until it stops, and then find a way out of the water, or swim perpendicular to the pull into still water, then find a safe route to shore.

In any water emergency, the Great Lakes Surf and Rescue Project advocates a flip, float, follow strategy.

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.

 

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