When Great Lakes Beaches Can Be Dangerous

Bill's Blog
Grand Haven State Park Crowd on the Breakwater Waiting for the Fireworks_1533511946841.jpg.jpg

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:

Grand Haven Department of Public Safety News Release “Drownings and Rescues at Grand Haven State Park”
Date:  8-5-2018    Times:  12:05pm, 3:22pm, 3:48pm
Location:  Grand Haven State Park Beach
Officers from the Grand Haven Department of Public Safety responded to multiple water rescue calls at Grand Haven State Park Beach.  Several swimmers experienced distress while swimming in hazardous wave conditions.  Two victims drowned, one is in serious condition, and two are in stable condition. Other swimmers in distress were able to self-rescue or with bystanders assisting.  Individual incidents as follows:
 12:05PM  Officers responded to a report of a swimmer struggling in the water near the State Park Pavilion building.  Witnesses reported the man was not wearing a life jacket.  An off duty East Grand Rapids Fire Fighter entered the water and attempted to locate the victim.  Five Public Safety Officers and a Park Ranger then entered the water to search for the man.  Officers received assistance from bystanders to form a human chain.  The victim was located at 12:17PM using the human chain search method.  The victim was unresponsive and GHDPS officers performed CPR.  He was transported to NOCH by NOCH Paramedics where he later passed away.   The victim has been identified as:  David Knaffle, age 64 from Wyoming MIGHDPS was assisted by State Park Personnel, United States Coast Guard Station Grand Haven, Ottawa County Sheriff Department, and NOCH Paramedics.
 3:22PM   Bystanders pulled a 46 year old Alto man from the water.  GHDPS Officers and NOCH Paramedics provided care.  The man has been admitted to NOCH in serious condition.
 3:48PM   Officers responded to the report of multiple swimmers struggling in the water north of the pavilion building.  Bystanders had pulled 5 swimmers from the water, including a 20 year old man from Lake MI and a 17 year old woman from Lake MI.  Both victims from Lake MI were admitted to NOCH.  Officers formed several human chains with assistance from bystanders in search of a swimmer that was reported to have gone under the water.  Officers located the man in approximately 5 feet of water and then performed CPR.  He was transported to NOCH and pronounced dead.   The victim is a 20 year old man from Lansing.  Notification to relatives is pending. 
Additional reports of possible swimmers in distress were received simultaneously for areas near City Beach and south of City Beach.  More than twenty Fire Fighters and Police Officers were assigned to rescue teams to search for possible victims.  The additional reports and searches did not yield results and no other people have been reported missing.
 GHDPS was assisted by the Grand Haven Township Fire Department, Spring Lake Fire Department, Ferrysburg Fire Department, Robinson Township Fire Department, Ottawa County Dive Team, Ottawa County Sheriff Department, NOCH Paramedics, and State Park personnel.
 Jeff Hawke, Director of Public Safety

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