LELAND — A Leland summer resident died after his kayak overturned in Lake Michigan, and 2013 appears to be shaping up as another tragic year on northern Michigan waters.
The death of Robert J. Womac, 70, on Tuesday was the second this month in Lake Michigan off Leelanau County, and the third such death determined to be a “dry drowning” — in which cold water closes off airways — in the Grand Traverse region this summer.
Leelanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich said Womac was kayaking with another man — Dale M. Hathaway, 81 of Northville — when a large wave overtook their kayak about 100 yards from shore near North Omigisi Beach Road. He said a witness called 911 at about 4 p.m. and reported the kayak was upside-down and two victims were in the water.
Womac wasn’t wearing a life preserver, he said.
“The other rider was,” Borkovich said.
Hathaway managed to swim to shore uninjured after about 45 minutes in the water. Medical Examiner Matthew Houghton said Hathaway told authorities the water was “glass calm” when they left from Womac’s summer home off Leland Woods Drive, but winds soon whipped up 3-foot waves that capsized their kayak.
“It threw them about 20 feet from the boat when they went over,” he said.
Borkovich said a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter was able to locate the victim. Rescue boats from the Leelanau County Sheriff’s Department, Glen Lake Fire Department and Leland Fire Department also assisted.
“The Coast Guard was able to locate the victim in the water, at which time marine Deputy Richard Blake jumped into the water, secured the victim and brought him up alongside the boat,” Borkovich said.
Womac was declared dead at 5:45 p.m. after rescue crews determined it was too late to resuscitate and brought him ashore in Leland Harbor. Borkovich said Womac spent his summers in Leland, but is a permanent resident of downstate Belleville.
Houghton said a postmortem exam performed Wednesday showed Womac’s likely cause of death was “laryngospastic dry drowning” — a reflex response triggered by exposure to cold water. Dry drowning victims show little or no water in their lungs.
“(They gulp) in water and it aggravates the epiglottis and closes off the breathing system,” Houghton said.
Miles Percy Smith, 16, of Wyandotte, and Michael Anthony Michalski, 53, of Fife Lake, both died June 23 in separate incidents that were ruled dry drownings. Houghton said colder-than-normal water temperatures this summer explain the three dry drowning deaths: surface temperatures where Womac was found were 67 degrees.
“He was found in 11 feet of water,” Houghton said. “The temperature drops about 1 degree a foot. Anything below 68 (degrees) can cause a laryngospasm.”
This month, cold Leelanau County waters also claimed the life of Stephen William-Osler Easter, 8, of Ann Arbor. He was canoeing with his father back from North Manitou Island on July 1 when their canoe overturned. Both wore life jackets, but the boy died from hypothermia in 55-degree waters.
Traverse City West Senior High School student Owen Williamson, 17, drowned in North Twin Lake in May.