ST. JOSEPH, MI (WLNS) – Do you know what to do if a current sweeps you out into the middle of a Great Lake?
We’re almost halfway through the year and the Coast Guard has already reported 12 drownings, all in the Great Lakes.
Our Mariah Harrison took a trip to Lake Michigan and talked with one man who survived his accident in Lake Michigan and has devoted his life to making sure other people do too.
“The currents aren’t going to pull you under, they just pull you out.”
Dave Benjamin is the executive director for the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.
He hopes you, your family and friends head out and enjoy the Great Lakes this summer, but with safety in mind.
It was his own near-drowning experience on Lake Michigan that inspired him to start the Surf Rescue Project.
“December 26th, 2010 I was surfing in Portage, Indiana.”
Dave says Lake Michigan waves are the best during winter. On the day of his accident, a wave caught him off-guard, peaked and threw him off his surf board.
“My nose dipped and it catapulted me and I landed flat on my back. Got the wind knocked out of me, then the wave crashes on me,” said David Benjamin, executive director, Great Lakes Surf Rescue
He tried to wave for help, but friends were too far out, tried to use his surf board to stay afloat, but his ankle strap had snapped.
“So I’m like complete panic. And all my years of swimming on Lake Michigan and swimming in pools, even in Huntington Beach, California is like out the window.”
Benjamin thought this was it, he would die doing the thing he loved most. He said a lot of strange thoughts went through his head. But one stood out, he remembered an old article he’d read on drowning titled, “Drowning, Doesn’t Look Like Drowning.”
“In the article he describes the sounds of drowning as like facing shore, mouth at water level, head tilted back, climbing the ladder motion, choking, hyperventilating, gasping for air and I realized I’m doing all these signs of drowning.”
He quickly relaxed his body and mind, floated to the surface and flipped on his back.
“Flip, float and follow, and follow the safest path out.”
Write that down: flip, float and follow.
The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project uses those three words when they travel the region teaching water safety with a heavy emphasis on floating.
“Float to keep your head above water, float to conserve your energy, float to calm yourself down from the fear and panic of drowning, and then follow the safest path out of the water.”
Currents and tides aren’t something you have to think about while swimming in a pool, but in the Great Lakes they should be some of the first things you think about.
There are three to keep in mind, a long shore current runs parallel with a sand bar or beach.
“Often times what will happen is that a long shore current will be pushing in to the pier, and then it goes out, and that’s like the worst case scenario that someone could get in.”
Reporter: “Why is that the worst one?”
Benjamin: “well, it’s going to go out the entire length of the pier, so unless there’s somebody on the pier who could throw you a throw ring and pull you in, you’re going out for the long ride.”
Dave just explained how a long shore current can feed into what’s called a structural current, mostly found near piers.
Dave says a majority of drownings in the Great Lakes happen near piers.
To get out of one you’ll have to swim away from the pier and out of the structural current running alongside it.
“The long-shore current can feed into a rip current.”
You might be familiar with this one.
“Waves are coming up on the shore, they’re going to rise up the beach and then they’re gonna recede.”
Possibly carrying you or your child out with them. Even the most experienced swimmers have trouble with rip tides.
But remember, the longer you can stay at the surface, the higher your chance for survival.
And when in doubt flip, float, and follow the safest path out.
The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project discourages people from making rescue attempts unless you have the proper training.
But they say if you do attempt to make a rescue, look around for a flotation device before jumping in because would-be rescuers often times end up as victims themselves.
If there’s no throw-ring, surf board or any other flotation device to be found, a drink cooler can work in a pinch.