Flip, float, follow: surviving dangerous currents
BERRIEN COUNTY, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - Unless this year is unlike any other before, people will die this summer in Lake Michigan.
The National Weather Service reports over the last five years, 49 people have drowned in the Great Lakes because of current related issues, with the majority of those incidents happening in Lake Michigan.
Lake Michigan has the most drownings because it attracts the most tourists, and because of its long length exposing the water to dangerous longshore and rip currents.
To help you better understand the dangers so you can protect yourself and your family during this summer's swimming season, Newschannel 3's Kirk Mason went for a swim in Lake Michigan with an expert.
"If you go anywhere in the United States today and you ask anyone, a stranger, what do you do if your clothes catch on fire? They say stop, drop, and roll" said Dave Benjamin, of Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.
"If you say what number do you call if there is an emergency? They are going to say 9-1-1. If you say what do you do if you are drowning? There is a deafening silence," Benjamin said.
Benjamin started a non-profit to educate the public about the Great Lakes to try and prevent drownings.
He started the Great Lakes Surf Rescue project after almost drowning while surfing in Lake Michigan. Benjamin had a bad wipe out, the wind was knocked out of him, and he fell to the bottom of the water.
"I am thinking this is it, I am not going to make it out of here," he said.
He made it, by floating, and now spreads his three point message: flip, float and follow.
Flip yourself over so you are on your back, then float. Floating is critical to conserve energy, and to calm down in what is a panicked situation. The follow, is follow the correct path to safety. However, in Lake Michigan we learned that can be easier said than done.
Finding the correct path to safety depends on the type of current you are facing. For example, on Sunday when we entered the water at Tiscornia Beach, in Berrien County with Benjamin in a dry suit, powerful waves were present, and a current was being felt. It was a longshore current, running parallel to the beach.
The current was pushing us toward the pier.
The way to escape a current is to swim out of it, not against the current. We escaped a longshore current running parallel to the beach, by swimming to shore. Rip currents pull swimmers away from the shore.
The mistake many make is trying to swim back to shore. If you are caught in a rip current, and swim parallel to shore, you should swim out of trouble. However, Benjamin says it is not always easy to figure out the type of current you are facing.
"It is very hard to assess which way the current is pulling, because when you are in over your head, the point of view is at the water level," he said.
That is why Benjamin promotes his three steps; flip, float, and follow. He also recommends swimming at beaches where there are lifeguards, and bringing float devices even if everyone knows how to swim.
Also, remember no matter how good of a swimmer you are, on some days swimming is just not safe, so be aware of warnings posted at beaches.