TRAVERSE CITY — An increase in drownings on Lake Michigan in the last six weeks has public safety advocates reminding tourists and locals alike to respect the big lake’s power.
Dave Benjamin, spokesman for the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, said at least 15 people died on Lake Michigan since June 6; prior to that date no drownings were reported this year.
Three of those deaths occurred in northwestern Michigan. A 16-year-old died in Grand Traverse Bay June 23 and two others died in canoe and kayak incidents off the Leelanau County coastline, including an 8-year-old boy who perished July 1 after spending more than an hour in chilly waters during a canoe trip with his father to and from North Manitou Island.
“We had a slow start with the drownings this year due to a cold winter and spring, but now we are seeing a spike in the numbers,” Benjamin said. “Why? Because the water temps are in the 75-to-80 degree range. It’s perfect water to swim in, and when the wind blows, here come the waves.”
Leelanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich said the number of drownings on the lake is a significant topic of conversation in the county. People want to know “why are all these people drowning?” he said.
One simple answer: people aren’t respecting Lake Michigan’s power, its ability to change at a moment’s notice, and how icy-cold waters in early summer can be lethal, Borkovich said.
“If you asked a guy in the 1950s, ‘Hey, let’s take a kayak and go out into the middle of Lake Michigan,’ they would look at you and say ‘Are you crazy?’” Borkovich said. “People have lost respect for the Great Lakes. They are callous towards the dangers. They are being challenged by all these reality shows ... to go out and somehow ... engage it.”
Warnings for increased diligence on Lake Michigan come after a record year for drownings in 2012. Ninety-three people perished on the lakes last year, including teenager Brian Paul Rolston, 16, who drowned at Van’s Beach in Leland amid dangerous lake conditions and rip currents.
That tragedy prompted a community-wide discussion in Leland about beach safety. A beach safety committee was formed at the township level, and prompted the township to encourage beachgoers to follow the website first2warn.com, which offers localized warnings about rip currents and dangerous tide conditions.
Leland Township Supervisor Cal Little said the matter is a complex one. In 2012, the discussion was about rip current safety, yet in 2013, kayak and canoe-related incidents are to blame.
“With the incidents of the two drowning this year, they were not riptide-related,” Little said. “It’s a very difficult situation; you can do an awful lot, but you have multiple causes to the problem.”
Benjamin recommends some basic principles:
- Respect the lake.
- Make sure kids wear properly fitting life jackets.
- Implement a one-to-one relationship between parent supervision and the number of children in the water, especially in rough conditions. One parent watching two or three children in strong waves can be inadequate.
- Know the rip current survival strategy of “flip, float and follow.” If in danger of drowning or exhausted from a rip current, swimmers should flip onto their back and float to keep their head above water, offering the chance to calm down and conserve energy. Swimmers then should follow the current to assess which way its flowing and swim perpendicular to the flow. Experts advise against fighting the current.
Borkovich said lengthy canoe or kayak trips into Lake Michigan should involve a friend with a boat who can perform a rescue, opposed to just roughing it and hoping for a rescue if things go poorly.
“The number one thing people can do is have respect for water, and then always, always, always, always wear a life preserver,” Borkovich said.