Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 16, 2012

Editorial: Swimmers must respect lake's power


---- — This year, in large part due to powerful rip currents that have sprung up along the east shore of Lake Michigan all year, 89 people have drowned on the Great Lakes, the majority of them in Lake Michigan. Leelanau County teenager Brian Rolston drowned Aug. 30 at Van's Beach due to a rip current.

The total so far this year is higher than all of 2011, with a few weeks of swimming left in the season.

The "pandemic," as one expert put it, has communities up and down the lake debating what they can do short of shutting down beaches or posting lifeguards and rescue personnel up and down the lake, a logistical and economic impossibility.

There is, of course, no one answer.

We can hope the rip tides that have plagued the shore this year subside or that everyone could be transformed overnight into a powerful and experienced lake swimmer who knows how to escape rip currents.

Neither is likely to happen. But officials from lakeshore communities are looking for alternatives that might make a difference.

The number of fatalities should prompt local governments to completely rethink beach and water safety, said Dave Benjamin, executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. "On the Great Lakes, we've had 250 drownings since 2010. This is pandemic-like, and it's still not getting attention."

Two approaches seem most encouraging. One is to post a number of signs at area beaches that warn of rip currents and how to detect them and that include graphics showing what to do if you're caught in one. The second is to teach young swimmers the Michigan Sea Grant's "Flip, Float and Follow" strategy.

The first step in that strategy is for swimmers to flip onto their back and float to conserve energy and fight off a sense of panic. Next is to follow the current but swim perpendicular to the current's flow until one can emerge and get back to shore. Trying to swim back to shore against an outgoing current is almost impossible.

"When you are floating, you can calm down and assess which way it's pulling you," Benjamin said. "As long as you are floating, you are alive. As long as you are struggling, you are drowning."

Jackie Kovacs, an Illinois tourist who went into Lake Michigan off Peterson Beach in Benzie County to save her 10-year-old granddaughter and had to be saved herself, said she'd like to see more signs, more notices of rip current dangers and for officials to close beaches when dangerous conditions arise.

Tom Ulrich, deputy superintendent of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, said the National Park Service is reviewing its procedures to see what additional steps can be taken.

He said the Park Service planned to make sure road-end beaches have signs warning of rip currents.

Ultimately, swimmers have to be aware of water conditions and know what to do if caught in a current. Communities have to consider closing beaches when necessary, put up lots of signs to educate swimmers, and ensure as rapid an emergency response as possible.

The lake is what it is, and its tremendous power is one of its great attractions.

We need to respect that power and learn to live with it.