'It's like quicksand'

Becky Vargo • Feb 17, 2018 at 9:00 AM

Officers pelted each other with snowballs and hooted when they went through the ice, but it was all serious concentration when it came time for the actual rescue training.

Officers from the Grand Haven Department of Public Safety along with personnel from U.S. Coast Guard Station Grand Haven emerged from the fog on Grand Haven’s south pier Thursday afternoon to practice rescue techniques from the cold channel waters as well as the Lake Michigan slush.

Lt. Clint Holt of the Grand Haven department said it was good to have a little fun, but part of that fun was giving the officers an opportunity to experience what it was like on the Lake Michigan ice and see how difficult it actually was to make your way through it.

“It’s like quicksand sucking you in all the time,” he said. 

It’s one thing when you are attired in a dry suit that gives you some buoyancy, but it’s a totally different situation when you are dressed in civilian clothes, Holt explained.

“It’s very difficult to swim around in,” he said. “It’s very exhausting.”

Holt also noted that it was slushier closer to the pier because of the structural current. Farther from the pier, officers were able to find ice stable enough on which to stand. 

On the channel side of the pier, ice buildup made it almost impossible to get to a ladder.

Officers didn’t have any trouble maneuvering in the freezing water in their dry suits and were able to climb up the ladder with the help of ropes that were anchored to other officers and a steel life ring stand.

It’s a different story on windy days, Holt emphasized. He told the officers their jobs would be 10 times more difficult. 

The wind also tends to blow ice pack up the channel. Some of those icebergs are as big as cars and can weigh several thousand pounds. Officials won’t put a rescue swimmer in the water if there is danger of him or her being crushed between the icebergs, or an iceberg and the seawall.

Changing temperatures over the winter have created a lot of weak spots in the ice off Grand Haven, and Holt recommends not going out on the ice. Because Lake Michigan is constantly moving, it makes it even more dangerous. 

Different shifts of officers will continue training on Grand Haven waters through next week.

Basic or flat-water training is usually done upriver in an area without current. Once officers master the basics of dealing with the ice and cold water, they move training out to the elevations of the pier and the ice pack on Lake Michigan.

Holt emphasized the dangerous conditions and that certain weather circumstances would keep officers from being able to enter the water to perform a rescue.

“If we need to call a helicopter, it’s going to be 40 or 45 minutes before they get here,” he said. “And then it’s too late.”

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