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Big increase in the number of fatal drownings in the Great Lakes

Swimmers and boaters in Michigan need to be more careful on the water.

"We're at 23 fatal drownings on the five Great Lakes so far this year. It's about 50% up from last year at this time," says Bob Pratt, the director of education at The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.He says many recent deaths have been boaters who were swimming or they ran into trouble while boating on the lakes. 

Of all the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan is the most dangerous, partially due to the population density in that area. "Typically 50% of our drownings occur on Lake Michigan and 50% of those happen in the south end of Lake Michigan," Pratt said. 

Reasons behind the increase

Pratt says the increase in drownings this year could be due to the colder water. "People are simply really, really tired of the cold weather and decide that they're going to go out boating even though the temperatures are very, very cold." 

Also, the north-south orientation of the lakes mean they get southwest winds that cause more wave action. "We notice an increase in drownings when there's an increase in wave action," says Pratt.  The increase in wave action also causes an increase in dangerous currents. 

Preventative measures

One of the best ways to prevent drownings is for people, especially children, to wear their life jackets when on the lake.  If you're concerned about fashion or movement restriction, Pratt suggests using inflatable life jackets or those that are concealed in a belt pack. Pratt points out that a person sinks very quickly after being thrown from a boat. "If you had the life jacket on, your chances of survival increase greatly." 

Adults should make sure children are always wearing a life jacket, even if they're just going to the beach. 

Credit GLSRP.org
The “Flip, Float, and Follow” Rip Current Survival Strategy was created by the Michigan Sea Grant.

Another preventative measure is for swimmers to recognize that the lakes are very dangerous bodies of water but their currents do not pull people under. "There's no such thing as undertow, " said Pratt. His organization advises swimmers to follow the Flip-Float-Follow method to escape a current. Flip on to your back. Float there to keep your head above water. Then follow the current to determine which way it's going before swimming perpendicular to that flow. 

Pratt says males are four times more likely than females to drown. He says that has to do with risk-taking behavior that males tend to do. And he says that males, especially teenagers, tend to overestimate how well they can actually swim. 

The Dangerous Currents Outreach Project is a great resource for water safety tips and more.

Kyle Norris is from Michigan and spent ten years as a host and reporter with Michigan Radio, the state’s largest NPR-affiliate. He lives in Seattle and works as a substitute host and producer at KNKX.
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