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Fall and winter season pose new hazards

09/26/2017 – Manistee News Advocate – Fall and winter season pose new hazards to fishermen – The danger of drowning doesn’t disappear with the summer season.

During the fall months many of the piers become dangerous with waves going over the top. People should stay off of them in those conditions and not attempt go fishing in those areas. (File photo)

While some news outlets are claiming Lake Michigan saw fewer drowning deaths this past summer season than in 2016, Dave Benjamin, executive director of public relations and project management for Great Lakes Surf and Rescue Project, says people need to look at the big picture, not just during peak swimming months.

“We still have four more months to go,” Benjamin said. “Now what happens is, people may not see any more swimming drownings, but people might be washed off the pier, fall out of a boat or, as we get into December, fall through the ice while ice fishing. It could be kayakers, people on paddleboards or other recreational activities.”

According to the surf and rescue project, 33 people confirmed Lake Michigan downing deaths have occurred since Jan. 1. However, he said there are reports of three more, pending the identification of the bodies, which were removed from the lake, as well as several people who are still in the hospital and last listed in critical condition.

“It’s not always easy to get the information right away,” Benjamin said. “Sometimes we can’t get an update for a while because of the confidentiality of health information. We’re on track to see 100 drownings in all the Great Lakes together, and if the trend in Lake Michigan continues, we could end up seeing 40 to 50 drownings in the lake alone. Unfortunately, a lot of drownings continue to happen.”

Last year, 45 people drown in Lake Michigan, with six others last known to be in critical condition from nearly drowning.

Benjamin said drowning is one of the leading causes of death, worldwide, especially in very young children. He said people need to understand how dangerous the water is, and treat water safety like other threats to life and limb. In the United States, it is the fifth leading cause of accidental death.

“People have a lackadaisical attitude when they go out in a boat, or out onto a pier,” he said. “People think it can’t happen to them or their kids. That approach can be dangerous.”

Benjamin said there are several things that lead people to dismiss the idea that they are in danger.

“There is the stigma of drowning,” he said. “Often times, when a drowning happens, the public point of view is to blame the victim, caregiver or parents. People say it is Darwinism. People think only stupid people drown, and it gives them a false sense of security. They think it won’t happen to them, or their kids, because they are not stupid, or a ‘bad’ parent. I spoke to a woman who pulled a boy out of the water and people on the beach were making these comments in the midst of the resuscitation.”

Benjamin also said many people think knowing how to swim is the solution, when it is only a start.

“I’m not against swim lessons, but people need to learn how to survive in the water,” he said. “There needs to be a water survival component, including how to stay afloat. The statistics show 66 percent of drowning victims were considered good swimmers.”

To survive, Benjamin suggests the flip, float and follow approach, if a person finds themselves in the water and can’t easily get to a flotation device or to shore. If a person thinks they are starting to drown, they need to remain calm and flip onto their backs and float, keeping their head just above water and their chest at the water level. Once floating and calm, the goal is to find the safest route out of the water.

Benjamin also advocates teaching water safety classes, the same way fire drills are taught. The surf and rescue project holds safety presentations throughout the Great Lakes region. In Benzie County, Barbara Smith, a nurse at Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital, received a Hometown Health Hero Award for writing a grant for water safety funding resulting in 14 water safety presentations in both Benzie and Frankfort area schools, as well as several for government entities.

“We are now scheduling water safety presentations for winter and spring of 2018,” Benjamin said. “We’d like to do about 500 presentations.

Fall and winter water safety

Recreating on the water in the fall and winter comes with different types of hazards than in the summer. especially on Lake Michigan. Weather conditions and water temperature make entering the water more dangerous, especially if it is unintentional.

“The biggest change is the weather pattern changes,” said Chief Thomas Smith, officer in charge at the Frankfort Coast Guard Station. “It gets windier, which makes bigger waves on Lake Michigan. It’s not so much a problem on inland lakes.”

The weather can also change quickly, making it dangerous to go out onto the lake, or venture out onto the pier structure at Frankfort.

“Be aware of the weather forecasts, be aware of what is coming,” Smith said. “If you see waves crashing over the pier, don’t go out there.”

Smith also said plunging water temperatures make survival in the water difficult.

“People get hypothermia very quickly,” he said. “When people are exposed to cold water and wind, they lose body heat very quickly. When somebody is in 40 degree water, hypothermia can incapacitate them in 30 minutes.”

Smith said people who intend to the enter the water, like paddleboarders and surfers, should wear the proper protective gear, like dry and wet suits.

Those out on the water for other reasons, like boaters, anglers and kayakers, should wear warm clothing, and wear a life jacket.

“Dress according to the circumstances,” he said. “I don’t expect people out fishing to wear submersion suits, but dress warmly; you can get hypothermia without even getting in the water. Wear the flotation device, once you hit the water, it is much harder to put on.”

In the winter, when the lakes freeze over, Smith advised always knowing the ice conditions before venturing out.

“Make sure you are checking it to make sure it can hold you,” he said. “Don’t go out on, or drive vehicles over, suspect ice.”

He also suggested ice anglers wear a life jacket, and let friends and family know where they intend to be, and how long they intend to be there.