Dangerous Currents Claim Lives in Great Lakes

Jun 5, 2013

As summer water temperatures warm-up, more people are enticed into playing in the big waves. And warnings about dangerous currents are being posted at more beaches.

The number of people who have drowned in the Great Lakes or been rescued has gone up in each of the last three years. And researchers are testing ways to better forecast dangerous nearshore currents.

Nearly Drowned

Jamie Racklyeft is one of the lucky ones. Last summer he was standing waist deep in heavy surf here at Van’s Beach in Leland. He’s in his late 40’s, tall and lean, a fair swimmer so he sensed no danger.

“Pretty soon I noticed I was up more to my chest. And I thought well I should head back in. And I was sort of moonwalking as I walked toward shore I realized I was still being pushed out faster than I was walking in,” Racklyeft recalls. “And then the next thing I knew it was up to my neck. And then pretty quickly it was over my head.”

Racklyeft had heard about rip tides in the ocean and knew enough to swim parallel to the shore to try to break free. But he says the waves were relentless. Every few seconds they knocked him to the bottom again and he came up sputtering for breath. He lost his sense of direction and was tiring quickly when the full impact of what was happening hit him.

“This is how I’m going to die,” he says. “Right here where I’ve been coming my whole life on a beautiful summer day that seemed so safe. And I have no chance to say goodbye to anyone.”

Racklyeft says doesn’t remember much of what happened next. Things got dark and quiet. Then he felt like he was being laid down in the sand and he heard muffled voices asking are you all right.

Apparently a couple on the beach heard him yelling for help and commandeered a kayak to get to him and pull him out. To this day he doesn’t know who they are.

In the ambulance, he remembers hearing talk about the need to close Van’s Beach. But less than an hour later, a sixteen-year old boy from Leland drowned in the same spot where Racklyeft was rescued.

Deaths Spur Research

Guy Meadows with the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Technological University has been studying currents in the lakes probably longer than anyone else. “Over the last several years, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of deaths that have been attributed to rip currents,” he says.

On a wide sandy beach along Highway 2 in the U.P. that’s notorious for its big waves and strong currents, a twelve year old boy from Gaylord drowned fifteen years ago. Meadows says the boy’s death prompted new research.

What he and his team want to do is get good accurate data about what conditions produce dangerous nearshore currents.

How Rips Form

On the beach along Highway 2, the researchers can see where a big storm just a couple of days earlier ripped through sand bars just a little ways out. When there’s big surf, the sand bars block receding waves until so much pressure builds up that it cuts a fairly narrow channel through the sand and a current rushes out.

The team also is using a new form of radar, similar to Doppler that tracks storms, to measure the velocity of the waves and the currents.

“We’re working very closely with National Weather Service on being able to more accurately forecast the conditions that lead to the development of rips and then ultimately we’d really like to be able to forecast for which particular beaches rip currents would develop under a given storm,” Meadows says.

 More Awareness   

The idea isn’t necessarily to close beaches when swimming conditions are dangerous. Some cities may opt to do that, such as Ludington, which has a long pier that forms strong currents.

Steve Hernek has run the Dunes Shores resort for more than fifty years. It’s across the road from the beach along Highway 2. He points out that in most places it’s impractical to keep people out of the water when big waves are crashing ashore. “Well, that would be hard to do because that’s the time when it’s really fun,” he says.

Hernek had a customer who got caught in a nearshore current and nearly drowned a couple of decades ago. Now, in his restaurant, he displays some diagrams to show when and how currents form and what to do if caught in one. He thinks if people respect the big waters and have good information about the currents they’ll be fine.

“Awareness is the most important thing. Because if you know what you’re dealing with and you know how to deal with it, they’re really not that dangerous,” Hernek says.

Those are some pretty big ifs.

What To Do

This summer, Michigan Sea Grant is stepping up safety training at state parks along the lakeshore and for those who run municipal beaches. Jamie Racklyeft, the man who nearly drowned in Leland, is working with them, travelling the state and telling his story.

“If I had done what I’ve heard since then, they recommend flip, float and follow. Flip over on your back so you’re less likely to breathe in water and it’s easier to swim. Float wherever the current takes you until it gradually let’s you break free. And then follow the path of least resistance, which isn’t what I was doing. I was definitely fighting too hard,” Racklyeft says.