Waves of Awareness

At least 15 Lake Michigan swimmers drowned from rip currents in 2011, an increase from 2010. A retired firefighter is working hard to reverse the trend.

IN THE HOST AUGUST SUN, the four-foot waves off Lake Michigan’s New Buffalo beach beckoned surfer and Lockport, IL firefighter Nick Rymut. But 29-year-old Rymut, who had just completed a surf rescue workshop, only caught a few swells before he heard a woman screaming from shore and saw a young boy caught in the grip of breaking waves, silently struggling to hold up his head. Without hesitation, he worked through the waves on his board, pulled the panicked boy onto it and paddled him to shore.

Visibly relieved, the boy’s mother was also confused. Why had her son, who had ventured only waist deep, nearly drowned? Like many Great Lakes beach-goers, they were both unaware of the awesome presence and power of rip currents.

Associated more with oceans, rip currents form when waves pile up along shorelines then shoot back out to sea in small underwater rivers, often dragging along with them unsuspecting swimmers. According to Bob Pratt, founder and co-director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project (GLSRP), the tendency is for swimmers — fearful of floating out to sea — to fight the current.

Photography by Brian Confer

But with currents exerting between 170 and 700 pounds of pressure, even Olympic swimmers don’t stand a chance of beating them. Caught in the cross flow between rip currents and breaking waves, many swimmers panic. By Pratt’s count, at least 15 Lake Michigan swimmers drowned from rip currents in 2011, an increase from 2010.

But the retired firefighter is working hard to reverse the trend. He created and instructed the surf rescue class that Nick Rymut attended that day last August. He also assisted with the rescue, which earned him a “Lifesaver of the Year” Award by the National Drowning Prevention Alliance. This summer, Pratt will offer 14 additional surf rescue classes along Great Lakes beaches, including 12 on Lake Michigan. Originally geared to surfers, water safety personnel, and first responders, Pratt recently tweaked his curriculum to include the general public. Goals of the classes include learning to recognize rip currents and identify and aid persons in distress.

“Drowning does not look like Hollywood portrayals of drowning,” Pratt stressed. “People think that (a drowning person) is going to holler and wave, but if they lift their hands, they will only sink deeper.” Dave Benjamin, co-director of the GLSRP, adds that “actual drowning persons are docile” and silent.

So far, Pratt and Benjamin’s efforts to raise rip current awareness have been met with enthusiasm and optimism. Nick Rymut, for one, is a believer. “Education can save lives,” he says. He should know.

For more information about rip currents and the GLSRP’s Water Safety Surf Rescue classes, visit the Third Coast Ocean Force, david-benjamin.blogspot.com.

Surf safety:
Go with the flow

• Signs of a rip current include a channel of churning, choppy water; debris moving steadily away from shore; water that’s a different color and a break in an incoming wave pattern.

• If caught in a rip current, go with the flow until it stops. Then swim horizontally (parallel with the shoreline) away from the current before swimming back to shore.

• Parents: Stay within arm’s reach of your children at all times and outfit them with snug-fitting life jackets. Always have a ring or other flotation device handy to throw to someone in distress.

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