Lake Michigan drownings have officials urging vigilance

After five drowning deaths in Lake Michigan last weekend, officials are urging swimmers to stay vigilant when enjoying the beach as summer winds down.

Among the deaths were that of a 44-year-old Wheeling man who drowned when apparently caught in an rip current while swimming off a southwestern Michigan beach Sunday, and a 14-year-old Evanston boy who died while swimming near Gillson Park in Wilmette.

The other drownings occurred in Indiana and Wisconsin, bringing the total to 43 deaths on Lake Michigan so far this year, according to Coast Guard statistics.

Just because it's a sunny day, it doesn't always mean the lake is safe for swimming, said Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Brian Dykens said.

“You have to treat the lake with respect,” he said.

Although rip currents are one of the main causes of drownings, and many beaches have signs warning of them, beachgoers may not know much about them, said Amy Seeley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The currents — narrow, but powerful streams of water that move away from shore and can carry swimmers with it — appear most commonly in the oceans and Great Lakes. Their presence depends on several factors, including wind, weather and topography of the beach and sandbars in the area.

“Even an Olympic swimmer couldn't swim through one,” Seeley said.

Rip currents are more common in Indiana and southwest Michigan, which is where three of last weekend's drownings occurred, but they can and do happen in the Chicago area.

“If you do get caught in a rip current, don't fight it,” Dykens said. “Swim parallel to the shore until you feel it relax and you can swim back.”

Swimmers often make the mistake of going against the current and wind up tired and panicked. Instead, experts recommend swimming parallel to shore until outside the current or ride out the current until it eases.

“It's not the rip current that pulls you under,” said Bob Pratt, creator of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, which works to educate people on safe practices in dangerous water. “If you can avoid panic, your chances of survival are a lot greater. Roll over and float on your back until its over.”

Swimmers in smaller lakes around the state don't have to worry much about rip currents, but large waves can still knock people off their feet, said Mike Adam, senior biologist with the Lake County Health Department.

With inland beaches the biggest concern is usually water quality and clarity, Adam said. If someone goes under the water and is struggling, it may be hard to see them through murky water.

“This is the last hurrah of summer so to speak,” Adam said. “And the big concern is that you'll have an accident where people aren't paying attention.”

Other safety recommendations include swimming in a group, wearing a life jacket and swimming on beaches monitored by lifeguards.

As people are gearing up for the holiday weekend, Dykens also cautioned against swimming or boating while drinking. Alcohol can reduce body temperature and impair judgment and swimming ability, which can cause swimmers to take more risks and get into dangerous situations, he said.

“Use your best judgment,” he said. “Pay attention and try to stay safe.”

Boating while intoxicated is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail or $2,500 fine, said Stacey Solano, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Police will be out in full force this weekend making sure boaters are complying with state laws, she said.

“There is always a zero-tolerance policy, but obviously on Labor Day Weekend when so many are expected to be on the water, we'll do all we can to ensure people stay safe,” Solano said.

Rescues and deaths in Lake Michigan

The U.S. Coast Guard has saved hundreds of lives in Lake Michigan the past four years, but also has recorded nearly 200 drownings since 2008.

Lives Saved

2008: 161

2009: 135

2010: 128

2011: 125

Lives Assisted

2008: 1,766

2009: 1,474

2010: 1,409

2011: 1,632

Lives Lost

2008: 37

2009: 40

2010: 77

2011: 43

Note: Lives saved means people that would have died without help. Lives assisted means they were not in mortal danger, but were stranded and in need of help.

Source: U.S. Coast Guard.