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Rip current survivor shares his story

By Sheri McWhirter/Traverse City Record-Eagle (TNS) • Aug 9, 2018 at 1:00 PM

LELAND — Jamie Racklyeft nearly died in a rip current in Lake Michigan off Van's Beach in Leland six years ago.

Racklyeft said he remembers arguing with those who saved his life, thinking he was already dead.

But he wasn't dead. Racklyeft was pulled just in time from the lake water in which he'd been trapped in what became a deadly rip current.

"I went out and was playing in the waves. It was great, the greatest I had felt all year," he said.

Then Racklyeft said he noticed as he started to walk toward the beach that he wasn't making any progress.

"It was like I was moonwalking," he said.

The realization he was caught in a rip current came to Racklyeft, so he said he used what little knowledge he had about the shoreline phenomenon — learned years ago from watching "Baywatch" episodes — to attempt to survive his predicament. He didn't fight the current, and he swam to the side trying to escape the water's pull.

Nevertheless, Racklyeft said he lost his bearings, swallowed his pride and yelled for help, but then quickly became exhausted and overwhelmed by the pummeling waves before he lost consciousness.

"I had the realization that I wasn't going to get out of this," he said.

But he did survive. Bystanders used a kayak to save Racklyeft's life.

Unfortunately, he wasn't the only swimmer to be caught in the rip current that day. Sixteen-year-old Brian Rolston died one hour later, drowned after being caught in a rip current at the same beach.

More than 650 people have drowned in the Great Lakes since records began to be kept in 2010.

Racklyeft said survivor's guilt hit him hard. It was jarring, he said, and it prompted him to use his professional skills to benefit others. He works as a communicator for the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and decided to use his knowledge to launch the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium, a nonprofit agency dedicated to ending drownings in the Great Lakes.

"I need to make sure nobody else discovers rip currents in the Great Lakes the hard way," Racklyeft said.

The agency is a partnership with the University of Michigan, Michigan Sea Grant and the National Weather Service, among other groups, in an effort to raise awareness of water safety and the danger of rip currents in the Great Lakes.

Rhett Register of Michigan Sea Grant said working with the consortium fits in with what his agency does, and that the focus on beach safety and dangerous currents is amplified by the consortium's efforts.

Sue Jennings, from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, said there have been six drownings in the national park, though not all in Lake Michigan. Park officials installed warning signs and host training sessions to teach swimmers how to survive being caught in a rip current.

"There tends to be more severe currents in the Ludington and Manistee areas, but we do get rip currents here," she said, particularly at Platte River Point and Peterson Road Beach.

Racklyeft said the consortium wants to make the instructions for surviving a rip current just as much common knowledge as "stop, drop and roll" is for a fire.

A rip current is a channel of water that is so strong that not even Olympic swimmers can escape when fighting the current. They often appear where another channel of water enters a larger body of water, such as a river outlet.

The way to survive is to "flip, float and follow," Racklyeft said. "Flip over on your back, float to conserve energy, and then follow the path of least resistance back," he said.

The consortium offers rip current warning signs on its website, from which local municipalities and parks can purchase to install on their own beaches. The signs contain a QR code from which smartphones can be linked to a website that reports current weather and water conditions for the location.

Additionally, Racklyeft said the consortium advocates for loaner life jacket programs and the return of lifeguards to Great Lakes beaches. He said worries about liabilities are unfounded because a trained lifeguard will never do anything but try to save lives. Funding issues for lifeguards can be overcome, as well, he argues.

"They pay for themselves so many times over," Racklyeft said. “They can save lives.”

More information about the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium can be found at www.greatlakeswatersafety.org.

Great Lakes fatal drownings

Year/number of fatalities

2017 - 88

2016 - 99

2015 - 55

2014 - 54

2013 - 67

2012 - 101

2011 - 87

2010 - 74

Source: Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium

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