Traverse City Adds Water Safety To High School After Multiple Drowning Deaths

Oct 18, 2013

Recent deaths from drowning in Grand Traverse County have put water safety in the high school curriculum. All freshmen in Traverse City schools will spend a few hours this year learning about the dangers of water.

Such instruction is less common that you might think up north.

If you grew up downstate, you might have taken swimming lessons at school and learned some of the basic safety mantras like, “reach or throw, don’t go” if a swimmer is in trouble. But few schools up north have swimming pools. Harbor Springs is a notable exception.

Traverse City has two Division I high schools and both buildings were designed with pools that were never built to save money.

“Our small gym was supposed to be a pool back in the early 50s when this school was built,” says the Cody Inglis, the athletic director at Traverse City Central High School. “It was turned into gym because it was a last second cut.”

Inglis says it’s tough to teach swimming if you have to bus kids over to the community pool. Next week they’ll start doing that for a basic water safety course.

Students will learn and practice skills like what to do if you fall out of a canoe or kayak. The program will also raise awareness about issues up north like cold water in early summer. Very cold water can send people into shock.

“Your lungs can’t handle that,” says Inglis. “They spasm when they get that cold water and it instantly causes some distress in the body and that is one of the reasons drownings occur.”

Cold water might have been a factor in the drowning last May that set this new program in motion. The surface temperature was 68 degrees the day Owen Williamson drown in North Twin Lake. The lake also drops off steeply near the shore. Williamson, a Traverse City West High School student, was swimming with friends.

The safety program is Grand Traverse County’s response to that event and other recent deaths at the same spot. The county will pay for these safety courses.

Jason Jones is the Parks and Recreation Director. He says while it is true lots of little kids come for lessons at the county pool, he wants the attention of high school students.

“When kids start getting together, once they can drive and they start going places together in groups, often times its easy to forget about what you learned when you were eight,” says Jones.

The course will not have much information about rip currents, the cause of many deaths in Lake Michigan in recent years.

Cody Inglis admits a three-hour water safety course is not a lot but he says it’s a start.  He’d like to see schools teach swimming. There will be more pool time available soon in Traverse City with a second pool now under construction.