Prevent the Next Lake Michigan Tragedy from Happening
Do you know about different kinds of lake currents, and how to survive being caught in them? Do you wonder how to learn about lake safety? Experts answer these and other questions in hopes of preventing another drowning after Tyler Buczek's tragic death.
Port Washington area residents galvanized over the tragic Lake Michigan drowning of 15-year-old Tyler Buczek, who was set to start his first day of high school just two days after his death.
While the community rallied support for friends and family of the teenager through a candlelight vigil and other events, conversations are now looping together citizens who share a common concern: increased water-safety education and awareness.
"Water safety is always foremost in my mind, and this stuff with Tyler (Buczek) just really haunted me," said Port resident Barbara Bates-Nelson, who is also a water safety instructor at Thomas Jefferson Middle School. "I thought, 'What can we do as a community to bring awareness to the (dangers of the lake)?'
"I think people underestimate the lake, they don't realize all of the conditions that can contribute to unsafe water conditions."
At least seven people drowned in the Great Lakes over the long weekend, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. Drowning is the fifth leading cause of unintentional injury death in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and nearly 80 percent of the people who die from drowning are male.
- Related: Port Washington resident, 24-year-old Pete Doughtery, drowned while kayaking in Lake Michigan in March.
"Education is definitely the most cost-effective solution," Port resident Rik Kluessendorf commented on a Patch article about the drownings. "We can't force people going into the lake to know all about rip-tides, but a sign describing the dangers at least gives them the information to make the decision for themselves. People treat Lake Michigan like a larger version of Random Lake, when in fact it is more similar in behavior to a smaller version of the Atlantic."
A poll showed Patch readers overwhelmingly believe more education about water safety would help prevent such tragic drownings.
"People are ready to listen now, I think this just really cut so many people (in the community)," Bates-Nelson said. "The time is now — we need to have these things in place before the next season. We need to have some education."
Dave Benjamin, executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, said currents in Lake Michigan are different than those found in an ocean — and that can make them "deceptively more dangerous."
Benjamin described four different types of currents found in the Great Lakes:
- long-shore currents, which run parallel to shore;
- structural currents, which flow parallel to structures;
- rip currents, which flow away from shore;
- flash rip currents, which are "short-duration, high-energy rip currents."
"What can often happen is that you may get pulled out into the flash rip current, then get into a long shore current and then into a rip current, so it’s kind of like a zig-zag," Benjamin said.
Lakes produce waves with much smaller time periods between them than those on oceans, Benjamin said. Waves on an ocean are caused by storms that could be hundreds or thousands of miles offshore, while waves on the lake are caused by wind conditions. When the winds are blowing onshore, things can get dangerous.
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Benjamin said the smaller wave lengths can also make it hard to spot a rip current — which, on the ocean, are often detectable because of changes in water color or debris flowing with the current.
"When you have waves that are in this short wave period (such as those on the lake), everything is churned up," he said. "When you're at the ocean, you see a murky brown (in a rip current) because it's the sand stirred up, but on the lakes … everything is brown and stirred up — so it's not as easy to see."
But the differences in dangerous currents on oceans and lakes has not been very well publicized, and this has fueled a lot of misconceptions that can lead to dangerous and tragic results.
"It’s been known for a long time that there's rip currents on the oceans … so what they did is they took these (warning and educational) signs that were designed for the ocean, and they put them on the lakes thinking that'll do it," but that's not the perfect solution, he said.
Flip, float and follow
Benjamin is a surfer and spends a lot of time in the Great Lakes because of this hobby. In December of 2010, after being held underwater by some waves, Benjamin found himself drowning.
"Immediately, the first thing I did was panic," he said. Benjamin started thinking he wasn't going to make it home; then, he remembered an article he had read titled, "Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning," by Mario Vittone.
"Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event," the article said. "The waving, splashing, and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for, is rarely seen in real life."
Benjamin remembered the article's explanation about a human's instinctive response to drowning; he realized he was following those steps, and decided he better control his panicking or he wouldn't make it. He relaxed, and started floating.
"That article saved my life," he said. "When someone gets sucked out in a rip current ... the first 10 seconds of being in a rip current is — they're either going to make the biggest mistake of their life, or they're going to flip and float and calm themselves down."
Benjamin took that experience and now, through the Great Lakes Surf Rescue project, he advocates a method to help people survive being trapped in currents: "Flip, Float and Follow."
His website describes the three steps of the strategy as:
- Flip over onto your back.
- Float to keep your head above water, conserve your energy, and to calm yourself down.
- Follow the current until it weakens. Most currents dissipate quickly as they move away from the shore into deeper water. Ride it out, figure out which direction the water is flowing and swim perpendicular to the current toward shore.
Benjamin said this method has advantages over the common "swim parallel" lesson that has often been taught as the escape method for rip currents.
"Swim parallel is not a cure-all. If you're caught in a long-shore current, for example, that current is pulling you parallel to the shore already, so you have a 50/50 chance that you're going to swim with the current."
Also, the strategy is easy for people to remember.
"Ask anybody, anywhere — what do you do if you catch on fire … they’ll say 'Stop, Drop and Roll'. … Ask anybody caught in a rip current what they would do … they either don’t know, or they say don't panic and swim parallel," he said.
Swimming will exhaust your body quickly, and, Benjamin said, remembering to float will help because you have a better chance of being spotted the longer you remain on the surface.
"The thing is, that the rip current is like a treadmill, and you're going to be swimming and going nowhere — and you're going to do this until you use all your energy," Benjamin said. "It's that first 10 to 20 seconds when someone is going to be terrified and they are going to exhaust all their energy."
"There are so many drowning cases where we heard that the person may have been trying to swim parallel. The thing is that if they would have just floated ... the longer you are at the surface, the more likely someone will be able to rescue you."
City officials can make the call
Coast Guard Public Affair Officer Brian Dykens said individual municipalities are responsible for overseeing any type of educational signage on beaches, except for shorelines that are federally regulated — which Wisconsin doesn't have.
The Coast Guard's role on the water is assisting in rescues, Dykens said, but they do also advocate for water safety.
"The lake's a very dangerous place, people unfortunately don’t realize that," he said.
Port Washington City Adminstrator Mark Grams could not recall the city having discussed in the past the need for educational signs or rip current warnings on either beach, but Mayor Tom Mlada said it is a topic he thinks warrants a discussion — and suggestions such as those made by Bates-Nelson and other residents will be considered.
"I think we need to have a dialogue," Mlada said.
Benjamin said one of the biggest ways to curb fatal drownings would be to staff beaches with first responders. If someone is drowning but is pulled from the water within 2 minutes of submersion, they have a 92 percent survival rate; at 10 minutes of submersion, there is a 14 percent survival rate — but likely with brain damage.
Without lifeguards on the beach, the law enforcement personnel responding to a drowning call often don't get to the beach until those 10 minutes are up.
"People need to demand that beaches have lifeguards," Benjamin said. "If someone is at the beach and witnesses this, it may be 10 minutes before first responders get there. We need first responders on the beach."
Though Mlada called adding lifeguards an idea "we could look into," Bates-Nelson pointed out that the Park and Recreation department has trouble staffing the city's pool with lifeguards, and it traditionally closes early in the season each year as staff go back to college.
A more feasible idea, in Bates-Nelson's mind, is creating some type of marked safe swimming area.
"If you have some type of visual out there that is aligned and says 'Don't go past here' — you might not go out too far," she said.
YMCA makes a 'Splash' for water safety
Recognizing the high fatal drowning rate among children, the Feith Family YMCA has recently started offering its Splash program to area second-grade classrooms.
"It's really not a swimming class, it's more of a water-safety class," Feith Family YMCA Executive Director Jennifer Clearwater said. "We feel that’s its critical for every young child to know basic water safety."
The class teaches students how to properly put on a life jacket, how to rescue another person and how to stay calm while doing so. It also puts a focus on "brown water safety," which includes water safety on lakes, rivers and ponds — not just at a pool.
Splash is a Metro Milwaukee YMCA program that started 17 years ago as an urban cause, hoping to curb the high number of African-American children who died from drowning; African-American children are three times as likely to die from drowning than white children, Clearwater said.
Clearwater said the Feith Family YMCA thought it was important to bring a program like Splash to the Port Washington area because of the fact that it is a lakefront community. The program has been operating in Ozaukee County for two years, having taught classes at Saukville Elementary, Lincoln Elementary and Port Washington Catholic School; it's served about 80 students so far.
The program involves four classroom visits from a YMCA instructor, as well as one day at the pool.
"In order to expand that program, we will have to look to philanthropic support for it," Clearwater said. "When it comes to supporting specific programs, we absolute have the ability to work with donors on it — and encourage it, because that’s how we’re going to sustain this program and (grow it)."
Dunwiddie Elementary School Principal Diane Johnson said the district continuously offers voluntary swim lessons at the middle school on Saturday mornings.
Get informed and involved
To donate to Splash
- firstname.lastname@example.org or 262-268-5408.
To learn about or donate to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue program
- email@example.com or 708-903-0166.