TRAVERSE CITY — A Kalkaska man was the holiday weekend’s third local drowning victim.
The 47-year-old was enjoying a Monday afternoon boating with his girlfriend, according to Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Chris Oosse.
He looked back to discover his personal watercraft, once tied to the boat, was adrift.
The man dove into East Grand Traverse Bay to chase it down.
His girlfriend called 911 after losing sight of him. Peninsula Township firefighters were on scene about 10 minutes later, according to Fire Chief Fred Gilstorff.
In those 10 minutes, the woman managed to flag down another boater and explain the situation, Oosse said.
The boater spotted the man about 13 feet down and jumped in. He managed to pull the 47-year-old to the surface and, with the help of other nearby boaters, loaded the man onto a nearby pontoon.
“What they did was pretty brave,” Oosse said. “They did a great job of pulling the victim out as fast as they could.”
Gilstorff, too, offered commendations. He plans to find a way to properly thank them down the line.
The boaters headed to shore, where they met first responders. Firefighters and a deputy waded in to get the man on land and into an ambulance.
He’d been underwater between 10 and 20 minutes, Gilstorff said.
“Anytime you’re without oxygen for more than 4 to 6 minutes, you start to suffer some pretty irreversible damage,” he said.
The 47-year-old was pronounced dead soon after arriving at Munson Medical Center.
A report on the incident is yet to be completed, Oosse added, and more details will be released later this week.
It’s something Christine Crissman, executive of the Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Center, has seen more and more in recent years.
“Folks sometimes don’t recognize how large and powerful the lakes can be,” she said. “It may look calm, but you always have a lot of currents and things that’re going on around the lake.”
Grand Traverse County deputies handled a similar drowning on Green Lake Saturday evening. It spurred a two-day search of the waters for 78-year-old Michael Henry Emaus, described to police as an “avid swimmer.”
Emaus opted to swim to shore and retrieve his other boat after he and his girlfriend’s pontoon encountered mechanical problems.
She waited on the ailing vessel until a good samaritan offered a tow, and called 911 upon returning to an empty house.
Divers pulled Emaus’ body from 56 feet below the surface late Sunday. A medical examiner investigation is ongoing, according to GTSD Capt. Chris Clark.
“It was an overestimation (of swimming ability,)” said Green Lake Township Fire Chief David Cutway. “People need to be prepared, either with flare guns, radio communication or cell phone communication.”
Emaus was Saturday’s second drowning victim.
A 19-year-old enjoying a Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore beach with family was the first. He’d set sights on a far-out sandbar, according to park Superintendent Scott Tucker.
The swim back proved troublesome.
The teen began struggling, and family members leapt in to help him. He went under before their eyes.
U.S. Coast Guard officers pulled the teen from eight feet under. He was pronounced dead at Munson later that day.
Lack of knowledge is largely at fault, said Dave Benjamin, of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.
Including those three, he’ll be adding 10 deaths to the nonprofit’s drowning statistics from the holiday weekend. It’ll bring 2020’s total Great Lakes count to 31.
“Drowning is a public health issue, but it’s not treated like a public health issue,” Benjamin said. “Most people think that if you know how to swim, you don’t have to worry about drowning.”
But more than 65 percent of drowning victims were good swimmers. And 80 percent were males — who tend to more enthusiastically take risks.
“When it comes to, ‘OK, there goes my Jet-Ski, I better get to it quick and rescue it,’ a person just swims out over their head,” Benjamin said. “Same thing happens with a beach ball or inner tube. You have the energy to swim there — are you going to have the energy to swim back?”
Crissman echoed those sentiments, adding that many local beaches have been changed by high water levels and natural fluctuations. She’s seen rip currents increase in the bays in recent years, too.
Benjamin suggests keeping an eye on young swimmers and, if struggling, flipping onto your back and floating. Life jackets are even more important — of all drownings in the Great Lakes between 2010 and 2020, less than one percent were wearing life jackets.
“Drowning is silent, it’s swift, it happens very fast,” Benjamin said. “After 10 minutes, if they’re then pulled out of the water and rescued, it’s only about a 14 percent survival rate.”
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