OTTAWA COUNTY, Mich. — Over two million people visit the shorelines of Ottawa County each year. Since 2002, Ottawa County has reported more than 130 current-related incidents, making it statistically the least safe location to swim along all of Lake Michigan's shorelines.
The National Weather Service created this map to help visitors understand where there are the most current-related incidents on the Great Lakes. Ottawa County comes in at number one because the prevailing wind direction on the Great lakes is west, southwest, and northwest. The combination of the prevailing wind and the number of people that visit that location causes the perfect storm of conditions.
Since 2002, 13 people have lost their lives in Ottawa county due to currents. But these numbers are so much more than just a statistic. They are lives lost, and something that one West Michigan family will never forget.
"I knew that there were currents, but I didn't understand the depth of how strong they were, how many different types there were, and how frequently, more often than not, they are in lake Michigan, with it being one of the most dangerous lakes that we have," explained Brandi.
These invisible currents, coupled with a lack of awareness and insufficient resources, cost Brandi's son Brandon his life that summer.
"He was out in the water swimming. It was a calm day. He ended up going out into the water and everybody noticed that he was no longer above the surface."
He went under at Windsnest Park, in Ottawa County, which is one of the statistically least safe stretches of water to swim in on Lake Michigan.
"There was no lifeguard, no life rings, no type of water safety assistance in any type of way, shape, or form," stated Brandi.
Brandi tells us that the sheriff's department was the first to respond, along with a couple of deputies. She explained they were not trained on water safety, so the search for Brandon was on standby until the fire department arrived. After an hour or so, they recovered his body.
"You kinda walk in this dark cloud. You don’t really know what you’re supposed to be doing anymore. The entire family is just devastated and broken. Trying to all work through their own process in grief and trying to do it is pretty difficult most times," Brandi said.
For Brandi, that meant taking action and joining the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, whose mission is to eradicate drownings in the Great Lakes. They helped Brandi to hang warning signs, placed a life ring at the beach, and campaigned to increase funding for first responder training.
The Executive Director of Public Relations and Project Management at the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Projects, Dave Benjamin, believes that we must go one step further to ensure visitors' safety.
"Every beach should be doing more. The gold standard of the Great Lakes water safety at the beach would be a lifeguard on beaches. And so many beaches do not have lifeguards," explained Benjamin.
This is the case for most beaches here in West Michigan. So, if you are not able to rely on lifeguards at the beach you must take measures to protect yourself before heading to the lakeshore.
"Just know how dangerous and deadly it is. How quickly the lake can take someone's love. Educate yourself. Understand the different levels of dangers and what to look for in regards to where currents could be or where they would be even stronger at, to avoid," pleaded Brandi.
She went on to stress that she still wants everyone to go out and enjoy the water, as she and Brandon used to do. But to always remember that the water is more than just a good time.
"It’s beautiful but it's also a beast."
A beautiful beast indeed...
These beaches have the ability to be safe and fun to swim in. However, when heading to the beach, you need to remain alert to wave conditions and changes in weather patterns and be knowledgeable of safety solutions.
That’s why this week 13 is On Your Side is bringing you Beach Awareness Week — week dedicated to telling the stories of the shorelines and how you can protect your family and others.
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