GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Following two more weekend drownings on Lake Michigan, the Great Lakes have surpassed 100 lives lost in 2022 — reaching that mark for the third consecutive year, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.
The 100th and 101st drownings happened Saturday. A paddler died while participating in a canoeing race near Frankfort and a kite surfer was found unconscious at Washington Park near Michigan City, Indiana.
“The fact is every one of these people had a mother and a father. Many of them have brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. Many times, there were other people with them at the beach, loved ones and family members. So the scope of drowning is much, much larger than just a statistical number,” Bobby Pratt, the co-founder of the GLSRP, told News 8.
The Great Lakes claimed 101 lives in 2021 and 108 in 2020. The highest number of drownings, according to GLSRP modern records, is 117 in 2018.
Pratt said education is the ultimate solution.
“We have a whole week devoted to fire safety in October. We don’t have the same kind of robust education program (for water safety),” Pratt said. “We do fire drills in schools, we do lockdown drills in schools, we do tornado drills in schools. Down in Illinois and Indiana, they do earthquake drills. And the fact of the matter is drowning will kill more people than fire, lightning, tornadoes, school shooters and earthquakes combined.”
He continued: “It’s a huge, huge problem and it just doesn’t get the attention that we think it deserves.”
Pratt and the GLSRP are pushing for several changes, including in-school curriculum to teach children how to play safely in the water. The organization is also pushing for lifeguards and mandatory rescue equipment at beaches.
“We would love to see lifeguards brought back. We’d love to see more signage and more rescue equipment,” Pratt said. “The state of Illinois passed an equipment bill where (all beaches) are required to have life-saving equipment on the shoreline of Lake Michigan. We are trying to do the same thing here in Michigan and in Indiana because when an incident happens, we don’t want to have would-be rescuers get into trouble in the water and increase those statistics.”
The drowning numbers weren’t always this high. In 2014, there were only 54 reported drownings on the Great Lakes and only 55 in 2015. Pratt believes the organization’s methods for gathering data has improved slightly, but there are many other factors that have contributed to the sharp rise in drownings.
“Those were fairly cool years. The weather plays a big part,” Pratt said. “The drownings that we have on the Great Lakes are (usually) during times when there are warm, windy weekends. The ‘W’s’ as we call them. … When we have hot, hot weekends that are windy, that is kind of the perfect storm.”
Pratt summarized that the warm weather brings more people to the beaches while the winds can interact with the shoreline and cause more rip currents. However, drownings don’t only occur on red-flag days.
“We see drownings on relatively calm days, too. There’s no real easy solution to this,” he said.
Pratt said he doesn’t want to scare people away from the Great Lakes, but rather to encourage them to know how to enjoy the water safely.
“The children in America now know how to stop, drop and roll. We’d like them to all learn how to flip, float and follow,” Pratt said. “If you get into trouble in the water, whether you fall into a backyard pool or you fall into Lake Michigan on a really rough day, flip over onto your back. That allows you to breathe whenever you want and help control that panic. Float to calm yourself down. Float to conserve your energy and float to notice, ‘Am I in a current that’s pulling me out or pulling me along the shore or pulling me along the pier.’
“Then, don’t try to fight that current. We know those currents can flow faster than any Olympic swimmer,” he continued. “So float on your back, conserve your energy, realize where the current is taking you and then swim at an angle away from the current and toward safety.”
Some new studies have reiterated that the “flip, float and follow” method can be the most successful way to escape rip currents.
“There’s actually some really good research out of New Zealand where (they found) 80% of people who just floated were eventually brought back to shore (by the rip current),” Pratt said.