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Great Lakes Article:

Swimmers, be wary of rip currents
By Michael Eckert
The Times Herald (Port Huron, MI)
Published June 8, 2007


Were you as fascinated as I was while growing up with all that advice on escaping rip tides?

Were you as disappointed when you got older and figured out rip tides don't happen around here?

If so, you were as wrong as I was.

This is national rip current awareness week. I'd have remained oblivious except I noted the National Weather Service forecast the other day warned that conditions along the Lake Huron shore of the Thumb likely were to create rip currents.

Hey, I swim in Lake Huron waters along the Thumb.

Rip currents kill as many as 100 swimmers a year in the United States - more than the number of people killed by tornadoes or lightning. On average, about seven a year die on the Great Lakes.

One instance I remember happened near Lexington a decade or more ago when some teenagers survived a harrowing ride in a rain-swollen current.

One I'm glad I don't remember directly killed seven people July 4, 2003, in a narrow stretch of southern Lake Michigan.

Authorities figure more than three quarters of open-water drownings may be related to rip currents.

The particular bad news is our low water levels may make rip currents more common on the Great Lakes. Steeper beaches and reshuffled sand bars can add up to surprises for swimmers.

A rip current is a strong, narrow channel of water that flows from the shore back out toward deeper water in the lake. Rip currents develop when wind and breaking waves push water onshore and then gravity pulls the water back out into the lake.

The forecast last week that included the rip current advisory also featured northeast winds that drive the waves up the beach. When the water spills back down the beach, it potentially can create a strong and almost invisible river that can quickly carry an unsuspecting swimmer into deep trouble.

First, it helps to recognize the conditions that generate dangerous currents, and to know what they look like. Be wary if you see:

  • A break in the incoming wave pattern.
  • A channel of churning, choppy water.
  • A line of foam or debris moving away from the beach.
  • A difference in water color. In Lake Huron, waves coming in are blue. A rip current may be green or brown.

    If you're caught in a rip current:

  • Stay calm. It's surprising, certainly, but not really that much more dangerous than the current at Lighthouse Park if you keep your head.
  • Don't try to swim against the current. Instead, swim across the current, parallel to shore, until you're out of the offshore flow. If you can't do that, relax and float or tread water until the current weakens, then swim at an angle toward shore.

    Then there are the default recommendations for swimming in any body of water under any conditions: Know what you're getting into, never swim alone and try to swim with a lifeguard present.

Contact Michael Eckert at 989-6264 or at meckert@gannett.com

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