Rip currents a serious problem on Lake Michigan beaches


School is just about finished for the year and that means many will start flocking to the beach. But before you make that trip to the water, you need to know about the hazards of rip currents. Here is a look at the important details as we observe Rip Current Awareness Week.

A rip current is a strong channel of water flowing away from the shore, and it can pull even strong swimmers quickly out beyond the sandbars.

Lake Michigan is particularly dangerous. In fact, over the last 10 years, Lake Michigan has had 7 times the number of rip current incidents (which includes rescues and fatalities) than the other Great Lakes. And comparing them to other weather-related deaths in our area, rip currents top the list with 26 deaths since the year 2000 on LaPorte and Berrien County beaches. That’s more than tornadoes, thunderstorm winds, lightning and flooding combined for the whole 37 county warning area covered by our National Weather Service Office.

Chief Petty Officer Steven Ruh from the U.S. Coast Guard has been called to many of the rescues here. On average, his team responds to 60 rescues each year. He’d like to see that number go down. “Most importantly, swimmers need to swim at beaches that are guarded with lifeguards, number one. And from there, monitor the weather, and if it’s really rough and there’s the red flag on the beach and the beaches are closed, appreciate those flags and don’t go in the water. Even the strongest swimmer can be affected by these rip currents.”
It’s a given that when the waves are large, the water becomes more dangerous, but rip currents can form even with smaller waves.

There are some things to look for to identify rip currents:
- Differences in water color or a break in the wave pattern.
- Channels of churning or choppy water.
- Debris moving out to sea

Ruh tells us that if you find yourself caught in a rip current, it’s best to swim parallel to the shoreline to get out of that outward flow of water. If you’re trying to fight the current, you’re just going to exhaust yourself and could possibly drown. Once you get out of that current, you would turn toward the beach and swim toward shore.

It’s hard not to panic when you’re being pulled away from the shoreline, but it is very important to not try to swim toward the shore. Swimming parallel to the shore will get you out of the current, or, if you are too tired to swim, just float on your back and ride out the current. It WILL eventually end, and then you can try to swim, or signal for help.
Another important thing to remember is to stay away from the piers. Rip currents can often form along piers, even when the waves are small. But the piers can be deadly for other reasons, as Ruh explains.
“The St. Joseph pier heads continue to be an extreme danger for visitors. Oftentimes people go out there and dive in the water, not knowing how shallow the water is. And each year, unfortunately we have several drownings there where people get trapped on the bottom, or have spinal injuries and then can’t swim. So, if you’re going to go out on the pier heads, we strongly advise you not to jump off the pier heads even though, it’s….we understand it’s fun and it’s a tradition here in St. Joe, but really, safety has to be number one.”
One final note, don’t be afraid to let some of the many tourists who visit our beaches know about potentially dangerous water conditions. Knowing the basics about rip currents can help make the summer season more enjoyable for all.

Before you head to the beach make sure you check out the beach forecast, which includes the outlook for rip currents. You can find a link to that on our weather page at www.wndu.com/weather.


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