On breezy-to-windy days, dangerous currents can develop along the breakwaters in the Great Lakes. First, let me tell you that most of the structures called “piers” in the Great Lakes are technically not piers. They are breakwaters. A pier allows water to flow underneath it. A breakwater stops the water. Piers are designed for fishing and access to boats. Breakwaters are intended to stop the movement of sand and mud into a river or harbor channel.
I took the picture above yesterday evening from a boat. This is a crowd of mostly young people on the Grand Haven State Park (south) breakwater. Some of the young people were jumping off the breakwater. Other people were swimming right next to the breakwater (south side).
Today we had one drowning and later in the afternoon multiple water rescues at the State Park. Let me state that at this point I do not know the specific circumstances of the drownings, but this was a typical set-up for dangerous currents on the south side of the breakwaters.
Here’s the beach reports from Sunday AM at the Michigan beaches on Lake Michigan. Note that all reports range from 3-5 feet. The largest share of beach drownings and rescues on the Great Lakes occur when waves are 3-5 feet. Note the report of 5-foot waves at Grand Haven State Park. Also note that red flags were flying at all the beaches, indicating “no swimming” and that there could be dangerous conditions at the beaches.
Here’s what happens on days like today (Sun. 8/5/18). We have a brisk south to southwest wind. At noon, the wind at the nearby Muskegon Beach was 17 mph from the south-southwest. The wind pushes the surface water along, creating a current that moves from south to north along the shore. The surface water moves along until it reaches the breakwater. Then, where can it go? The water can’t go up or down or up on the beach…so it moves along the breakwater from east to west out toward the middle of the lake.
This graphic shows the “danger zone”. It’s dangerous to dive off the south side of the breakwater or swim next to the south (windward) side of the breakwater. With a brisk south or southwest wind, the south side of the breakwater develops an offshore current and becomes dangerous. With a north or northwest wind, the north side of the breakwater develops a current and becomes dangerous, such as this day at Holland State Park. .
Before you go into the water, note the wind. Calm days won’t have these dangerous currents. If there is a healthy wind, note which way is blowing. Keep in mind that the largest percentage of drownings occur when waves are 3-5 feet. With a brisk south or southwest wind beaches like Grand Haven State Park and the south beach at South Haven. On a day like that, you might choose to go to Holland St. Park, where the swimming area is north of the breakwaters. With a north or northwest wind, you might choose Grand Haven St. Park over Holland State Park. Here’s an example of dangerous conditions.
Since 2010 (through 7/25/18 there have been 670 drownings in the Great Lake and 47 (not counting the last week and a half and any we may have missed). The most dangerous of the Great Lakes is Lake Michigan. No surprise…there are fantastic beaches and lots of vacationers. Grand Haven State Park has been the most dangerous beach on the Great Lakes.
Note that warmer summers have more beach fatalities. No surprise…more people are in the water when it’s warm. Today (8/5/18) was the 17th 90-degree day of the summer.
Again, on breezy/windy days…don’t swim near or jump off the windward side of the breakwater. If the wind is south or southwest, the south side of the breakwater can develop a dangerous current. If the wind is north or northwest, then the north side of the breakwater can develop a dangerous current.
Finally, here’s a statement released by Grand Haven Public Safety this Sunday evening:
Location: Grand Haven State Park Beach