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Great Lakes organization raising swimming safety awareness on Lake Michigan

Sunny morning at La Salle County Park on Lake Michigan, May 26, 2021 (WLUK/Eric Peterson)
Sunny morning at La Salle County Park on Lake Michigan, May 26, 2021 (WLUK/Eric Peterson)
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Once the weather heats up in Northeast Wisconsin, people flock to the hundreds of miles of beach we have along Lake Michigan in order to cool off.

It happens every summer.

And tragically, every summer, we also hear of drownings on our neighboring great lake to the east.

Dave Benjamin is the co-founder of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, and says drowning happens much more quickly than people realize.

"Hollywood, TV shows, cartoons often mis-portray drowning as lots of yelling, waving, splashing, this long dramatic event that's going to last several minutes at the surface, when a drowning person is not going to be able to yell for help or wave for help. There's not going to be a lot of splashing. Just gonna be a head, submerging, and then they're gone," says Benjamin.

According to their website, which tracks drownings on the Great Lakes, there have been nearly 1000 drownings on the lakes since 2010.

And there have already been 18 just this year through the end of May.

Lake Michigan alone accounts for nearly half of the drownings they have found since they have started tracking it.

But not all parts of Lake Michigan appear to be as dangerous as others.

This map from the National Weather Service shows that many of the beach current-related drownings-- that is, not including things such as boating accidents-- appear to be concentrated along the southeastern shores of Lake Michigan since their statistics began in 2012.

Our beaches, by comparison, have seen very few of these incidents.

The two main factors in this are higher population densities along other parts of the Lake Michigan shore, and the shape of the lake itself.

"Its configuration from north to south.... is about 307 miles long and from east to west it's about 118 miles wide.... So when we have say north winds fetching 307 miles all the way to the south end, it gets the whole lake moving with waves and dangerous currents," says Benjamin.

The most dangerous currents tend to occur when the winds are on-shore or side-shore, running parallel to the shore.

Since our prevailing winds usually come from the west and northwest, that means our winds are usually off-shore.

But that doesn't mean we are immune to dangerous currents and winds here.

If you do find yourself in trouble, the GLSRP recommends a strategy of flip, float, and follow.

Flip onto your back.

And Float on your back.

These two steps allow you to breathe more easily and to conserve energy.

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Then follow the current, and only attempt to swim to safety once the current has stopped pulling you away from shore-- or wait for rescue if possible.

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