Recent Lake Michigan tragedies

There have been some recent examples of people getting into trouble when strong winds blew them away from shore.

We just had several local tragedies where winds blowing directly towards the shore created strong rip currents that overwhelmed swimmers.

A serious lake. Never turn your back on Lake Michigan.

My cousin’s first husband and their 13 year old son drowned in Lake Michigan off Pentwater Beach when one of those sudden squalls blew in on late on what had been a beautiful summer day in 1993. Both were strong swimmers and lived near that beach, swam and body surfed there all the time. The investigation seemed to indicate that the son was being dragged off by the rip current and his father tried to swim out to him – his body washed up as the brief storm lulled, apparently battered by the breakwater. It was several days before the son’s body was located more than a mile offshore.

Today is a “moderate risk” day for swimming on Lake Michigan so yellow flags are flying on beaches with enough staffing to fly flags. Yellow means “swim with caution” while red means “no swimming” and green means “OK to swim”. I have to wonder why they don’t just use green or red.

My brother lives in Chicago. My ex-wife is from there. I used to know a lot of people that have spent time in Lake Michigan. We used to swim there a long time ago. I knew a guy that was a serious wind surfer. He was often on the Lake during windy periods because that was the exciting wind surfing. One afternoon he got blown out a long way from shore, and spent the night clinging to his board in high seas. He is now a good person to talk to about the dangers of Lake Michigan.

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There was a Coast Guard warning last weekend that northerly winds had created massive upwelling along the eastern shore from south of Frankfort all the way to Saugatuck with water temps along the beachfronts in the 40’s and 50’s. They warned against swimming but I noted no comments about boats. I shivered to imagine all the kayakers and SUP’ers heading out in tee shirts and shorts.

Upwellings are another surprising way that nature can catch people off guard. Sometimes they mention them on local weather forecasts and they warn that even just jumping off a powerboat into the lake (on a hot summer day) can cause people to go into shock.

I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for 7 years and frequented all the beaches in that 100 mile zone that turned frigid last weekend. I do give the harbor patrols and Coast Guard credit for patrolling and often turning back people in incompetent craft (including air mattresses!) and clearly unprepared for major open water from venturing offshore in the Big Lake, but I am sure the explosion in rec boats and SUP popularity in the 17 years since I left has been a challenge to them. The tragic stories that have emerged since then seem to confirm that. Fresh water notwithstanding, the Great Lakes are seas, and other than tides and no sharks, they have the same severe weather, storm, cold, wind, current and wave dangers as any salt water ocean…

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