According to a nonprofit organization that tracks Great Lakes drowning deaths, this year has been the deadliest on record in the water.
The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project has tracked drowning deaths since 2010, but 2018 is the first year to record over 100 drownings. A particularly hot summer may have contributed to that record-setting number of tragedies.
So far, 110 people have died in the Great Lakes, including 39 in Lake Michigan and 35 in Lake Erie.
Though many of the Lake Michigan drowning deaths happen on the Illinois and Wisconsin side of the lake, eight people died on the Michigan lakeshore this year so far.
In Ottawa County, three people died in Grand Haven water, including two men on the same day on Aug. 5. On that same day, a human chain pulled at least five other struggling swimmers from the water. Two weeks later, 20-year-old Allendale man Brandon Schmidt drowned in Port Sheldon.
Schmidt’s mother, Brandi Donley, is now making it her mission to spread water safety education.
“I don’t want people to take water safety for granted,” Donley said. “It can happen to anyone. Not too many people think about that (and) I can’t let it go. I need to do this for Brandon.”
Along with the Lake Michigan deaths, two men drowned in Allegan County inland lakes this summer, then a Grand Rapids man drowned in Saugatuck’s Kalamazoo River last month. Most recently, Park Township man Demetrius McKnight was found drowned in Lake Macatawa last weekend.
Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project Executive Director Dave Benjamin told The Sentinel in August the summer had multiple weekends with “the perfect storm of conditions” for increased drownings.
Benjamin said warm weekend summer days with high wind and wave conditions make for a dangerous mixture, especially when swimmers ignore red flag warnings at state park beaches.
In the past eight years, there have been 733 Great Lakes drownings. Before this year, 2012 and 2016 were tied for the most drownings, with 99 each. Historically, Lake Michigan is home to nearly half of all the drowning deaths across the five Great Lakes.
Currents, rip tides, undertows, cold temperatures, limited visibility and uneven depths can make swimming in Lake Michigan difficult, along with structural currents near break walls and man-made structures.
The most likely person to drown in a Great Lake is a male African American teenager, according to Safe Kids Worldwide. Nearly 85 percent of all drowning fatalities are male and African American children are twice as likely as white children to drown in open water.
To stay safe while on the Great Lakes, swimmers are reminded to wear life jackets, heed warning flags, check water and weather conditions, swim with a partner and stay in designated swimming areas. If possible, swim when there is a lifeguard on duty.
In a water emergency, follow the “flip, float, follow” rules. Flip onto your back to calm down and breathe. Float on your back until you are no longer in crisis and can reach shore. If stuck in a current or riptide, follow the current until you escape it, don’t fight the power of the water.