A tragic summer

Becky Vargo • Sep 2, 2016 at 8:00 AM

It’s been a tragic summer for families around Lake Michigan whose loved ones drowned in numbers much higher than in recent years.

The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project reports that 32 people have drowned in Lake Michigan so far in 2016. This number does not count the two boys who lost their lives in Holland Wednesday night.

A total of 69 people had lost their lives, prior to Wednesday, in all of the Great Lakes this year.

Most of the people who drowned were not wearing life jackets, officials reported.

Police said that two Holland boys, ages 17 and 14, lost their lives when they became caught in a structural current near Holland’s north pier and could not get out of the water. Two other teenage boys struggled, but were able to make it to shore.

Police reported five-foot waves Wednesday night.

National Weather Service Meteorologist Jared Maples said the wind coming out of the north had a lot of distance to whip up the powerful waves.

The waves hit shore, bounce off the pier structure and then channel back into Lake Michigan, Maples said.

“People battle waves and get tired, and then the current carries them out,” Maples said.

Away from the piers, swimmers have to contend with rip currents or longshore currents at different times, he said.

Grand Haven statistics

Two lives have been lost in the Grand Haven area this year.

On Aug. 21, Grand Haven resident Kenneth Phillips lost his life in the waves near the Port Sheldon pier.

On July 9, Coopersville resident Sheldon Benson drowned after his kayak overturned in Lake Michigan south of City Beach.

Grand Haven Public Safety Director Jeff Hawke said since 2004, his department has handled two drowning victims washed off the pier and four drownings around the pier and beach.

Several near drowning victims were rescued, including two teen girls in 2015.

Since 2008, police responded to 150 water rescue calls at the pier and beach. About 25 percent of those calls were for lost children who were thought to be in the water, but were later located.

What makes Lake Michigan so dangerous compared to the other Great Lakes?

Maples said the distance the wind travels over the water is one part of the equation. That’s called a seche.

If the wind is out of the north, the south half of the lake will have the highest waves.

In West Michigan, conditions are more dangerous with northwest or southwest winds, Maples said.

The higher the wind speed and the longer distance the wind travels, the more power it has to push and build the waves.

The wave period is another factor. This is the time between waves.

In the ocean you might have 5-7 seconds between each wave, the meteorologist said.

On Lake Michigan the waves are a lot more frequent, with only 3-5 seconds between each one.

“It wears people out a lot more quickly,” he said.

Then you add a lot more people because of the holiday weekend and nice weather, Maples said.

Holiday weekend forecast

Although the green flag turned into a red flag Wednesday afternoon, conditions calmed down overnight and should stay calm through the weekend, Maples said.

“The good weather is surrounding the entire holiday weekend,” he said. “It will be sunny all weekend with some clouds later on Monday.”

Temperatures should be in the mid to upper 70s on Friday and Saturday, inching closer to 80 on Sunday and possibly the low 80s on Monday.

Winds will be about 5-10 mph most of the weekend and wave heights should remain under a foot until Monday.

Maples said surface water temperatures have been running about 5 degrees above normal in the area.

“And to think a couple of years ago we were getting records for ice cover,” he said.

Surface water temperatures should remain in the upper 60s to low 70s in most areas for the next few days.

The last big weekend

“This is kind of our last big weekend of the summer. We usually see a large push in the volume of boats, said Coast Guard Station Grand Haven Senior Chief Justin Olson.

It won’t mean an increase in staff, but it will probably mean an increase of interaction with the boaters, he said.

“We’re always on the water – patrolling every day – training every day,” he said. “We’ll be doing more outreach and spreading our standard safety message.”

Olson said the Coast Guard will keep a lookout for boaters taking risks and will also take any opportunity they can to stress the importance of wearing a life jacket.

The Coast Guard official said there’s a wide variety of lifejacket styles and colors.

“Everybody is going to be able to find a life jacket that is comfortable,” he said.

Olson compared the life jackets to wearing seat belts.

“Years ago nobody wanted to wear them, but now it is the norm,” he said. “You get used to it.”

Seat belts have saved thousands of lives, Olson said.

“The bottom line – life jackets save lives too. It’s an easy way to pay the life insurance,” he said.

Great Lakes drownings

Here are Great Lakes drowning statistics since 2010, provided by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project:

2016 — 69

2015 — 55

2014 — 54

2013 — 67

2012 — 101

2011 — 87

2010 — 74

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