How even good swimmers are drowning in Lake Michigan

MUSKEGON, MICH. - With fresh charcoal on the grill and the women prepping food at the house, the dads took nine siblings and cousins for a quick dip at Pere Marquette Beach on a gorgeous, August day. 

Lake Michigan didn’t look rough. The waves were low enough for the smaller children to keep their footing by the beach. A little farther out, at a depth of 3-4 feet, Jamarion Gomez, 13, of Lansing was playing “shark attack” with his sister, ducking underwater and grabbing her by the legs while she held onto a floating board. 

“He almost pulled her under with him,” said his uncle, Ismael Gomez, 31. “And she actually kicked him off, thinking he was playing.”

But Jamarion disappeared. In 2016, the Great Lakes' worst year for drownings since 2012, his death was one of 98, with those lost ranging in age  from about 9 to 75, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, a nonprofit that tracks incidents and spreads awareness. This year is on track for even more drownings. 

Gomez, who helped raise the boy and said he had been swimming since age 4, became shaken as he recalled the Aug. 11, 2016, drowning that he said appears to be the result of a rip current. A fully clothed woman jumped from a nearby pier to try to save Jamarion after she saw him floating. It was too late, and for the next three weeks, he remained unconscious, with 90% of his brain failing. 

“He was a strong, healthy and happy boy,” Gomez said. “Even after we unplugged him, he still fought for 28 minutes. But he was brain-dead.”  

Last year's drowning numbers nearly doubled those of 2015, both for Lake Michigan (46 in 2016, 25 in 2015) and the Great Lakes (98 in 2016, 55 in 2015), according to the rescue project. Rip currents are frequently cited as a contributing factor, but there's no scientific way to determine whether one was involved, according to the National Weather Service. 

"For all the drownings in the Great Lakes, about a third are related to dangerous currents," said Dave Benjamin, 47, executive director of the rescue project. "The other two-thirds are people getting in water over their head and not knowing how to survive."

Experts say relatively mild winters result in warmer lake water, drawing more swimmers and increasing the odds of tragedy. And while the waves may not reach the size of those in the ocean, they tend to break twice as quickly.

The Michigan coastline along the east side of Lake Michigan is the deadliest for water-current-related incidents, according to 15 years of data from the National Weather Service. 

The Free Press visited five popular beaches in counties with some of the highest fatality numbers, and only one was staffed with lifeguards. The level of safety precautions varied, as did the swimmers’ understanding of water hazards. One sign all the beaches had in common illustrates the hourglass shape of a rip current as it extends from a beach and the relatively simple way to survive one: float, stay calm and don’t fight it.

Jeff Freeman, 47, of Peoria, Ill., on June 16 enjoyed North Beach at South Haven with his wife, Andrea, 37. He said he was surprised not to see any lifeguards. He also said he didn’t know much about rip currents. 

“I guess you’d just swim like hell, man,” he said. “You don’t have a whole lot of options.” 

But that's exactly how people get into trouble. Freeman, on hearing the advised method of floating calmly on your back until out of the current, said it was “good to know.” 

Experts also recommend swimming parallel to the shore to escape a rip current. Jamie Racklyeft, 53, a rip-current survivor and executive director of the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium, said the drownings are like a "silent epidemic," and people underestimate the water's power. 

"Even 3-foot waves can generate a rip current stronger than Michael Phelps, faster than Michael Phelps," he said. 

He was 48 in 2012 when he went out to play in the Lake Michigan waves at Leland. He soon found himself pulled out to water deeper than he could stand in and pummeled with waves. He thought he would die, but two kayakers came to the rescue. A few years later, he started the safety consortium, which includes more than 300 members including the National Weather Service, park rangers and university scientists working together to spread awareness. 

Knowing how to swim isn't enough

Winds flowing from west to east bring more waves to Michigan's west coast, where some of the Great Lakes' best beaches can be found. 

After the waves break and hit the beach, the water moves back toward the lake. The sandbars stop water "like a hand over a hose," forcing the current into gaps in the sandbars, said Bob Dukesherer, senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Rapids.

As the current of water going through the gap picks up speed, it can catch swimmers by surprise, pulling them 50-100 yards out into the lake.  

"They're rapid, and they're really tough to swim in," Dukesherer said. "People really underestimate the power of the Great Lakes and overestimate their swimming ability." 

Along each of the beaches the Free Press visited were piers, where so-called structural currents can be similarly deadly. Amanda Roll, petty officer 3C with the U.S. Coast Guard, based in Muskegon, said waves hit the structures, creating  "kind of like a whirlwind of water" that can drown a swimmer. 

"A lot of people think it's just being on a lake," she said, adding that unlike those in smaller inland lakes, the waves in Lake Michigan can have powerful currents. 

Most of the drowning incidents include one or more of these factors: they are on Lake Michigan;  they involve waves 3-6 feet high, and the waves occur  every 4-5 seconds, according to the National Weather Service

"People say, 'I know how to swim,'" Benjamin said. "It's kind of like saying, 'I know how to run. I can run a marathon.'...  A drowning situation is a marathon for your life."

Where are the lifeguards?

Jamarion drowned at a beach that removed lifeguards in 2010 to save money, according to the Muskegon Chronicle

Muskegon City Manager Frank Peterson said Friday that with lifeguards, there's a liability concern, and there isn't a revenue stream for them on the free-to-access beach that stretches about 2 miles. 

"Our beach happens to be one of the only ones that's free all the way up and down there," he said, adding that free access means providing fewer services. 

Gomez said part of the appeal of Pere Marquette was that it was an easy place to find "cheap fun" when you have lots of kids. Roll said there are no lifeguard at any beaches along her Coast Guard station's coverage area, which includes roughly 30 miles of beach. 

Our stops at beaches along the coastline included Pere Marquette, Grand Haven, South Haven and Holland, but only at Silver Beach in St. Joseph were lifeguards on duty.

About 91 miles south of Pere Marquette, Silver Beach is an especially popular stop for visitors. There are five to six lifeguards on duty, spread across three towers on summer days, and access costs $12 per vehicle for nonresidents. 

The $45,000 lifeguard program is supported by the access fees and covers costs for wages, equipment, supplies, training  and signage, said Jill Adams, environmental property manager with Berrien County Parks and Recreation Department. 

She said lifeguards provide extra sets of eyes to ensure people are staying safe. They're often students in high school or college who are in swimming programs, and they're trained to respond to emergencies and ensure nobody enters the water when the red flags go up. 

All the beaches the Free Press visited used the flag system — green, yellow and red — to signal whether it's safe to go in the water. On Friday afternoon, there was a yellow flag raised at Silver Beach, meaning people should swim with caution. Karri Griffith of Pittsburgh took her daughter, Liberty, and niece Lily Florian.

"I never stop watching them," Griffith said, even though lifeguards were nearby. 

At least one fatality was reported at Silver Beach last year, after a 17-year-old boy jumped off a nearby pier, according to WSBT-TV in South Bend, Ind. Adams said it occurred outside the swim area that the lifeguards watch. 

On July 27, 2013, in New Buffalo, a lifeguard was on duty when 15-year-old Matthew Kocher drowned in a rip current while a red flag — which means stay out of the water — was up, said his parents, Kathy and John Kocher of Tinley Park, Ill. 

"A person can drown so quickly, even within a minute," Kathy Kocher said. 

Their son had taken swimming lessons and even earned a swimming merit badge in Cub Scouts, but his skills were oriented toward swimming pools. The parents said they were unaware of the dangers of rip currents. Now, they're involved with the advocacy groups spreading the word. 

They've given presentations to more than 32,000 students in about 50 schools, they said. They started the Matthew Kocher Foundation, which has provided more than $63,000 to graduating seniors in his memory and has donated to the rescue project. 

"We don't want any other family to go through this," John Kocher said. "It's a perpetual nightmare. Every day we wake up, Matt's not here. It could have been prevented." 

They support putting more lifeguards on beaches. They also advise people to heed the warnings of weather reports and to learn how to float. 

"It almost sounds mundane, when you think about it," John Kocher said. "If you float, you can survive anything in the water." 

Trying to prevent a tragedy

Numbered poles were added to Pere Marquette after Jamarion's death. This makes it easier for 911 callers to direct first-responders during emergencies. 

Also being considered, Peterson said, are poles with safety lights similar to the flags that emit audible warnings when the safety level changes or alert people about missing swimmers. But he said some nearby residents aren't fond of the idea, and that parents need to pay close attention, regardless of the flag. 

"It's dangerous even when it's a green flag," he said. 

The beach also offers several life jackets and other flotation devices, free for use by anyone, that hang from a sign. These are available at multiple beaches, along with traditional lifesaver rings and lots of signs. 

Experts emphasize the importance of a life jacket. 

"Many people will not hesitate to put a life jacket on a child on a boat on an inland lake, but will let them walk into the waves on Lake Michigan without one," Dukesherer said. 

Danger is ever-present

Pere Marquette Beach was quiet in the middle of the day on June 15, with visitors well-secluded from each other.

"We get a little anxious if there's too many people," said Pauline Battenbough, who prefers a quieter beach on her annual visit from England to see her grandchildren. "This is perfect."

She and several other family members sat barefoot on beach towels while the three children, ages 5-10, played. The green flag was raised on a nearby pole. 

"We are ready to go, if need be," she said. "We know exactly how far (they) can go, and then we shout them back." 

Gomez said he no longer allows his kids to go to the beach. 

"Anybody that goes there, I tell them, 'Try to stay as safe as you can,'" Gomez said. "With a blink of an eye, (Jamarion) was off the board, and he disappeared." 

Muskegon Police Capt. Shawn Bride, who is a former lifeguard and competitive swimmer, said there's "always a rip current in the big lake," but that he can't say how much of a role it would have played in the death.  

"It's impossible for me to say with any certainty that on that day, that it was a rip current, that it was fatigue or a cramp," he said. "There's no way for me to scientifically back up any sort of a statement to you on what caused (the drowning)."

Bride also said it's important that people realize such large bodies of water are "dangerous all the time," even when it's nice and calm outside. 

"There are days when I don't go in past my ankles," he said. "You just don't." 

Gomez's sister made about eight teddy bears out of Jamarion's clothes. He would have turned 14 on June 24, and the family planned a birthday gathering in his honor.

In the days after the drowning, Gomez said he kept hearing about rip currents and how you can swim sideways to get out of one. 

"And I'm like, 'He was 13,' " Gomez said. "Even as an adult, I wouldn't have known what to do in that situation."

Drowning fatalities; Great Lakes, Lake Michigan

2017 (YTD to June 15): 30, 16

2016: 98, 46

2015: 55, 25

2014: 54, 24

2013: 67, 24

2012: 101, 50

2011: 87, 44

2010: 74, 38

Source: Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project

© 2017 D/etroit Free Press


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