The Real Man-Eaters: Rip Currents

Fact: you are 45 times more likely to lose your life to a rip current than a shark attack. We don't have sharks in our part of the world, but the dangerous currents of the Great Lakes are even more deadly. Twelve people perished in Lake Michigan just over Labor Day weekend, and two deaths occurred in Kenosha Harbor in the first week of September.

Photo: Bill Siel, Kenosha News Photo: Bill Siel, Kenosha News

 

"No Swimming" signs aren't there to ruin your fun, but to help keep you safe. Water behaves differently around structures like piers and breakwaters, often forming dangerous currents. If a beach hazard warning has been issued, take it seriously and stay out of the water until the warning is lifted.

 

Image: Michigan Sea Grant Image: Michigan Sea Grant

Expert diver Dan "Diver Dan" Vaccaro participated in the search for a teenage boy who drowned in Kenosha Harbor on September 6. Speaking to the Kenosha News, he pointed out three different wave patterns that indicated dangerous currents below the lake's surface. "You can see how the waves are going in two different directions and hitting each other. If that’s what you see on the surface, imagine what’s going on underneath."

 

 

We all know the dramatic TV scenes that show a drowning person yelling and flailing in the water. In reality, though, drowning happens quietly. Coast Guard rescue swimmer Mario Vittone's sobering article, "Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning," is essential reading for every boater and beachgoer and explains the difference between aquatic distress (being in trouble but still able to shout for help) and the instinctive drowning response.

This three-minute video includes interviews with experienced lifeguards and a demonstration of the instinctive drowning response.

 

 

Don't be too proud to wear a life jacket, especially in unfamiliar or "big" water like the sea or the Great Lakes. A personal flotation device can make the difference between life and death if you get into trouble.

If you see someone in distress in the water, unless you're a qualified lifeguard, the Red Cross advises to "Reach or Throw; Don't Go." Reach with a pole or form a human chain with other helpers. Throw a rope, line, or life ring to the victim; people have been pulled to safety when a closed cooler or empty gallon jug tied to a rope was thrown their way. Again, without proper training or a flotation device, do not go in after the victim, or you could find yourself in need of rescue, too. Mario Vittone has written about how a woman swam out to her drowning son with a cooler, using it as a life preserver to get them both back to safety.

Once the victim has reached dry land, call 911. People who survive drowning can later die from pneumonia or pulmonary edema (the lungs fill with fluid in response to irritation). Get medical attention right away to head off any complications.

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