Past weekend’s swimming deaths, upcoming holiday prompt Coast Guard safety reminder

9th Coast Guard District NewsCLEVELAND — Following a number of swimming deaths on Lake Michigan last weekend, the U.S. Coast Guard is urging those who plan to recreate on the Great Lakes during Labor Day weekend, or at any other time, to take appropriate safety precautions.

Labor Day weekend marks the end of the traditional beach and boating seasons on the Great Lakes, and is usually one of the busiest for the Coast Guard.

Several recent incidents on Lake Michigan spotlight the importance of proper preparation.

A 14-year-old Evanston, Ill., boy died Saturday while swimming in Lake Michigan near Gillson Park in Wilmette, Ill.; a 44-year-old man died Sunday while swimming in Lake Michigan near Hagar Park in Coloma, Mich.; a 33-year-old man died Saturday while swimming in Lake Michigan at Wells Street Beach in Gary, Ind.; a 23-year-old Valparaiso University student died Sunday while swimming in Lake Michigan at Porter Beach near Burns Ditch, Ind.; and an 11-year-old Racine, Wisc., boy remains missing after he disappeared Saturday while swimming in Lake Michigan at North Beach in Racine.  Emergency responders ended their search for the boy on Sunday afternoon.

“The Great Lakes are of course, by name, lakes, but they are more like inland seas,” said Frank Jennings Jr., 9th District recreational boating and water safety program manager. “Whether a boater, angler or swimmer, always be mindful of the conditions on the water and along the shoreline.  If rip current warnings, small craft advisories or other dangerous weather conditions are forecast, it’s best to stay away from the water.  There will be another day.  Taking unnecessary risks in the pursuit of momentary fun are risks not worth taking.”

The Coast Guard encourages swimmers and boaters to always check the current and forecasted marine weather before heading to the water. Even on seemingly nice days, waves and underwater currents may be more than the average swimmer or boater can handle. The National Weather Service marine forecast is available HERE.

Drowning is the third leading cause of accidental death in the United States and the second leading cause of accidental death for swimmers aged 5 to 44.  The Coast Guard recommends the following tips for swimmers:

  • Swim near a lifeguard — U.S. Lifesaving Association statistics during a 10-year period show that the chance of drowning at a beach without lifeguard protection is almost five times as great as drowning at a beach with lifeguards.
  • Never swim alone — Many drownings involve single swimmers. Learn water rescue techniques you can use if someone you are swimming with is in danger.
  • Don’t fight the current — If caught in a rip current, don’t fight it by trying to swim directly to shore. Instead, swim parallel to shore until you feel the current relax, then swim to shore. Most rip currents are narrow and a short swim parallel to shore will bring a swimmer to safety.
  • Swim sober — Alcohol is a major factor in drowning. Alcohol can reduce body temperature and impair swimming ability. Both alcohol and drugs impair good judgment, which may cause people to take risks they would not otherwise take.
  • Don’t float where you can’t swim — Non-swimmers and weak swimmers often use flotation devices, such as inflatable rafts, to go offshore. If they fall off, they can quickly drown. No one should use a flotation device unless they are able to swim. The only exception is a person wearing an inherently buoyant Coast Guard approved Type I, II or III personal flotation device, or life jacket.
  • Prepare for the unexpected — Wear a life jacket while participating in any activity during which you could unexpectedly enter the water, such as when fishing from break walls or piers.
  • Avoid unnecessary risks — Walking along break walls is risky because it only takes a momentary loss of footing to invite tragedy. Jumping from break walls, waterside structures or into unfamiliar water is extremely dangerous since unseen underwater hazards may exist.
  • Additional water safety tips are available on the U.S. Lifesaving Association website.

According to United States Lifesaving Association statistics, 80 percent of beach rescues are necessary due to rip currents, and more than 100 people die annually from drowning in rip currents.  The following are tips on identifying, avoiding and escaping rip currents:

  • Identify — Look for changes in water color; water motion; incoming wave shape or breaking point compared to adjacent conditions; channels of churning or choppy water; lines of foam, seaweed or debris moving seaward.
  • Avoid — Check the latest National Weather Service forecast for local beach conditions before heading out; learn to swim; learn to swim in surf; never swim alone; swim near a lifeguard; look for posted signs and warning flags indicating hazards; check with lifeguards before swimming and obey their instructions; always assume rip currents are present; if in doubt, don’t go out.
  • Escape — Remain calm to conserve energy; don’t fight the current; swim across the current parallel to the shoreline; when out of the current, swim an angle away from the current and toward shore; if you can’t escape, try to float or tread water until the current subsides then swim to shore; if you can’t reach shore, face the shore, wave your arms and yell for help to draw attention.
  • Assist — Get help from a lifeguard or if one isn’t available, call 911; throw the victim something that floats — a lifejacket, cooler, ball; yell instructions to escape; don’t become a victim trying to help someone else.

The following are additional safety tips all boaters should abide by:

  • Wear a personal floatation device/life jacket at all times — The law states you must have a PFD for every person on board, but the Coast Guard suggests you go one step further and wear your PFD at all times when boating. It is much more difficult to locate, access, or don a PFD at the moment the accident occurs. CLICK HERE for more information on personal floatation devices/PFDs.
  • File a float plan and leave it with someone who is not recreating on the water — A float plan is a lifesaving device on paper and can assist emergency responders with locating a distressed mariner. CLICK HERE for more information on float plans.
  • Have a marine band radio and visual distress signals — While many boaters rely on cell phones for emergency communications on the water, VHF-FM radios are much more reliable in the marine environment and work in areas where cell phones sometimes don’t.  When a mayday is broadcast over channel FM Channel 16, the international hailing and distress frequency, multiple response agencies and other nearby boaters can hear the distress call and offer immediate assistance.  Additionally, in accordance with federal law, recreational boats 16 feet and longer are required to carry visual distress signals such as flares, smoke signals or non-pyrotechnic devices, and vessels 12 meters or longer are required to carry sound-producing devices such as whistles, bells and gongs. State and local laws may require further safety equipment.
  • Have a registered 406MHz Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon — When a 406 MHz beacon signal is received, search and rescue personnel can retrieve information from a registration database. This includes the beacon owner’s contact information, emergency contact information, and vessel/aircraft identifying characteristics. Having this information allows the Coast Guard, or other rescue personnel, to respond appropriately.
  • Have a Personal Locator Beacon — A personal locator beacon is a compact device that is clipped to a boater, normally on the lifejacket he or she is wearing.  Once activated in a distress situation, the PLB transmits a 406 MHz signal to the International Cospas-Sarsat Satellite System, which provides distress alert and location data for search and rescue operations around the world.
  • DO NOT boat under the influence of alcohol — Alcohol affects judgment, vision, balance and coordination. Factor in boat motion, vibration, engine noise, sun, wind and spray and a drinker’s impairment is accelerated. CLICK HERE for more information on the dangers of boating under the influence.

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