GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The sound of waves crashing onto Lake Michigan’s shore is a staple of West Michigan summers. Beneath those waves are something far more dangerous: rip currents.
A rip current is a strong, often narrow current that flows outward into the water. If you think you can outswim a rip current, think again. Currents typically move at speeds up to 8 feet per second. That’s faster than Olympic gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps.
“Any water is never completely safe,” Michigan Department of Natural resources Plainwell District Supervisor Pat Whalen said. “Basically a rip current will be a build up of water on the inside of sandbar. As that builds up, it has to break back through that sandbar and that creates a rip current.”
If you find yourself caught in a rip current, remain calm. Experts say to “flip, float, and follow.” This means to flip onto your back to conserve energy, float as far out as the current will take you and follow the nearest path to safety. The best path is often swimming parallel to shore.
While bystanders’ gut reaction may be to dive in and help the person struggling, it isn’t the smartest thing to do.
“You put yourself at risk. You could be a possible second victim that we have to rescue,” said Matthew Dey, the safety and facilities superintendent for South Haven beaches.
The majority of dangerous beach days happen on the eastern side of Lake Michigan because of wind patterns. When winds are coming from the south or southwest, waves crash into the southern side of piers, causing choppy waters. When winds are coming from the north or northwest, the opposite happens.
PATROLLING THE WATER
If you’ve been out on the big lake on a busy beach day, you’ve almost certainly seen the U.S. Coast Guard patrolling the water and sky.
Marc Moore is the officer in charge at Coast Guard Station Grand Haven, which is staffed all the time and is in the middle of the busiest place for rescues on the Great Lakes.
“We patrol all the way from Duck Lake all the way down to Saugatuck,” Moore said. “Most common instances we respond to, I would say, (are) for search and rescue cases, boats taking on water, medical emergencies and then people drowning on the beaches of Lake Michigan.”
When someone needs help in the water, the Coast Guard is ready to spring into action.
“We respond, get on scene, start immediately, start searching, doing a shoreline search with our vessel in the shallowest water we can get into,” Moore said. “So we do a methodical search-for scan with our binoculars, do a 360-scan up and down, up and down and just continuing to search that waterway, looking for a person. If we do find them, we’ll quickly, immediately run the boat. We have life rings on board, we also have throw bags that we can throw to try and get them to safety.
“We do have Air Station Muskegon,” he added, “so if we do get these calls, they launch a helicopter out of there. Within 5 to 10 minutes, they’re on scene.”
Once they arrive, they are focused on more than only the initial victim.
“A lot of the folks that respond don’t understand the dangers they’re putting themself in when they’re going out in the water, especially when there’s rip currents and tidal currents and breakwall currents that we’re contending with out there in the waterway,” Moore said. “When people see somebody drown and sometimes their response is to go out there and try and save them and it can lead to, you know, one, two, three, four more people being drowning that day.”
To help raise awareness of the dangers of the lake, the city of South Haven developed a beach safety department. Several new strategies have been adopted, including offering life jackets to borrow and sending text message alerts on the latest conditions.
“Right now, we currently have 4,400 people subscribed and that’s for text, email, and phone notifications,” said Dey.