2019 on track for record number of Great Lakes drownings

According to Great Lakes groups, there have been 51 drownings on the lakes so far this year, which is two more than at this time a year ago.

800 people have drowned on the Great Lakes since 2010

According to Great Lakes groups, there have been 51 drownings on the lakes so far this year, which is two more than at this time a year ago. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

There have been more than 50 drowning deaths on the Great Lakes in 2019 — and experts say that puts us on track for a record-breaking year.

According to Jamie Racklyeft, executive director of the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium, people need to have respect for the water they're swimming in. 

"There's a lot of factors that contribute to drowning," said Racklyeft. "More people take vacations every year, the water is nice and warm, so people go in — and it's deeper."

Great Lakes water levels are at record highs for the summer, adding danger to an already dangerous situation. Since 2010, there have been 800 drownings on the Great Lakes. 

Great Lakes just as dangerous as oceans

According to Dave Benjamin, co-founder of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, the lakes are so dangerous because people think they can't be as bad as the oceans. 

"Surf conditions and win can create several types of dangerous currents — which can occur with or without waves," said Benjamin. 

Racklyeft said there doesn't seem to be consistency when it comes to drowning numbers year-over-year, but there are a lot of things people can do to keep themselves safe. 

"The thing we hear most often is 'I didn't know,'" said Racklyeft. 

The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project teaches water safety specifically targeted to the Great Lakes, including public and school presentations. Benjamin said the most important question to ask to assess your safety before getting in the water is to figure out which way the wind is blowing. 

"When your toes are pointed to the water, is the wind blowing onshore? Is it blowing offshore? The wind direction has an impact on the hazards," said Benjamin. 

Both Great Lakes groups warn against using inflatables on the water. When the wind catches the inflatable, Benjamin said people often end up "over their head."

Not fighting the current saved Racklyeft's life

For Racklyeft, promoting safety on the Great Lakes comes from personal experience. 

"In 2012, I went to Lake Michigan and went out to play in the waves, splash a little bit," said Racklyeft. "Next thing I knew, it's deeper and deeper and the current is pushing me out into the lake."

Luckily, Racklyeft knew to not fight the current and called for help. I knew not to fight the current, but the waves were just relentless. 

Listen to Racklyeft recount his near-drowning experience on Lake Michigan with Windsor Morning's Tony Doucette:

"I didn't think anyone heard me, but I woke up on the shore," said Racklyeft. "Someone saved me at the last second."

Benjamin said if you're ever struggling in the water, you should flip over and float on your back. 

The groups think water safety should be approached as a public health issue. 

"Most people don't know that they haven't been educated on what to do," said Benjamin. "There's a distinction between knowing how to swim and knowing how to survive."


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