Drowning. It’s Not Just for Stupid People

My recent attendance at a water safety conference stirred up a memory I don’t think about often but it’s always in the back of my mind. It was the time I nearly drowned. Looking back, I can see that the incident had a long-lasting influence on my life. Before I share that experience, let me tell you about the conference I attended.

Last Thursday and Friday in Sheboygan, WI, at the Great Lakes Water Safety Conference, presenters representing Great Lakes Sea Grant, National Weather Service, Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, universities, and others shared the latest science, techniques and technologies designed to prevent drownings on the Great Lakes.

As a kayak instructor and Wisconsin state education director for the American Canoe Association, I’m very much plugged into water safety. Safety tops the list every time we teach a class or lead a tour. Too many people don’t understand that the Great Lakes are not like an inland lake or river, and certainly not like a swimming pool. Cold water, dangerous currents and waves present special challenges for swimmers and boaters.

Some of my conference take-aways:

  • There is a stigma associated with drowning. Three common mistakes made by well-intentioned people following a drowning: 1. Blame the victim, 2. Blame the victim’s parents or care-givers, 3. Blame it on Darwinism. None of these are helpful. Participating in this stigma creates a false sense of security that “only stupid people drown” or “you can’t fix stupid.” The stigma has a negative impact on helping solve the problem.
  • Water safety is not common sense. It must be learned.
  • Drowning is a neglected public health epidemic. Globally, 40 persons drown per hour on average. In the United States 10 persons drown per day.
  • Great Lakes drownings were up 78% last year.
  • Even so-called “experienced outdoorsmen” in 17-foot fishing boats don’t realize the hazards of boating on the Great Lakes. How many fishermen (fisher persons?) do you see wearing life jackets? Not many.
  • The Great Lakes are a fantastic asset to residents and visitors. We don’t mean to scare people away but we want them to be aware.
  • Compared to the number of deaths from guns, car accidents and disease, the number of drownings in the Great Lakes is small. But those other causes are not easy to fix. We know how to fix this.
  • It’s not just about the numbers. It’s about people’s lives.
  • Megan Dodson at the National Weather Service maintains a database of Great Lakes drowning fatalities and rescues.
  • The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project tracks Great Lakes drowning statistics (536+ drownings since 2010), performs water safety presentations and training, works with family and friends of Great Lakes drowning victims to advocate water safety, and hosts Open Water Surf Lifeguard and First Responder In-service training.
  • Rip currents are an especially dangerous occurrence on the Great Lakes. They are difficult to see and are usually 50 to 100 feet wide. Rip current speeds are generally 1 to 5 mph.
  • We all know what to do if our clothing catches fire: “Stop, drop and roll,” and who to call in an emergency: 911. We know those things not because they are common sense. They are the result of intense and long-term PR work. We need to do the same for how to deal with a rip current: “Flip, float and follow.”

    “Flip, float and follow” instructions for surviving a rip current

  • Drowning doesn’t look like we think it looks like. https://youtu.be/aeqxKGQ_BJg
  • Great Lakes waves are very different from ocean waves. Spacing is usually only 3- to 5-seconds compared to oceans waves at 10 seconds or more.
  • The Great Lakes sometimes experience seiches, also known as a meteosunami. These are caused by air pressure disturbances often associated with fast-moving weather systems such as squall lines.
  • Port Washington, WI established a water safety advisory committee following the death of Tyler Buczek in 2012. Nearly $200K was raised in the community to support water safety education in the schools, signage, life jacket stations and life rings.
  • In Duluth, MN the Minnesota Sea Grant supports a system of rip current warning flags, public education, a website: parkpointbeach.org, beach rescue stations, and a volunteer lifeguard team.
  • The Apostle Islands and Port Washington, WI are two of the INFOS (Integrated Nowcast Forecast Operational System) sites where waves, currents, water temperature and water levels are monitored so swimmers and boaters can make wise decisions.
  • Drowning awareness needs to become part of Great Lakes culture.
  • The Great Lakes Beach Association annual conference will be held in Green Bay, WI Nov. 6-9.
  • The City of Sheboygan, WI is producing a series of videos to educate tourists about Lake Michigan hazards. These will be shown on closed-circuit TV in local hotel rooms. Sheboygan is also installing swing gates to discourage people from walking on the breakwaters when dangerous waves are present. Emergency location signs will also be installed along the lakefront to show callers precisely where they are when calling 911.
  • Not everyone responds to safety messages the same way. Effective messaging strategy about water safety must take into consideration individual differences. Sensation-seekers process risk differently than others. People also differ in their ability to consider future consequences of their actions. The key is to get multiple types of messages out there.

As I mentioned at the outset, I nearly drowned when I was young. I must have been about 12 years old. It was an early spring day. From our family’s house on the edge of town I could see the nearby creek that flowed south along the railroad tracks. The creek thawed quickly that year, leaving large slabs of ice along its banks. I decided to borrow my dad’s too-big-for-me wader boots and go for a walk along the creek. Without telling anyone where I was going, I followed the creek for about a mile, climbing onto ice slabs that lined the shore. The final chunk of ice I climbed was perched several feet above the creek. Suddenly it broke away, plunging me over my head into the cold, slow-moving water.

My first reaction was the automatic gasp reflex. I struggled to breathe. I felt like I was suffocating. I’m not sure how deep the water was but I remember not being able to touch bottom at first. My waders filled with water, making my struggle even more difficult. I don’t remember if I crawled back onto the chunk of ice or if I eventually found footing on the creek bottom, but somehow I scrambled back to shore.

I walked home soaking wet and told my mom what had happened. Then I had to wait for Dad to get home. Let’s just say he was not pleased.

Looking back, I think the incident reinforced in me both fear and fascination for water. I was never a good swimmer and it would take me years before I got involved with any type of water sports. In college, following the lead of friends, I ventured out by renting canoes and small sailboats from the campus rec department. Gradually I overcame my trepidation. After college I bought a sailboat and a canoe and accidentally capsized many times during my learning process. Later I learned to water ski and wakeboard. I even owned a power boat for awhile.

Years later Mary and I bought our first kayaks. During our first lesson, we were told we had to intentionally capsize and perform a wet exit. That first time was scary. Since then, after hundreds (maybe thousands) of wet exits and rolls (along with learning to scuba dive), my fear of water has turned into love and healthy respect. Now when I give kayak lessons, it’s helpful for me to remember my first wet exit so I can relate to what my students may be feeling.

The potential hazards of the Great Lakes are real. But armed with knowledge, proper training, the right equipment and the right attitude, fear can be replaced by respect. As stated at the conference, all drownings are preventable.

For more information about how you can get involved in water safety, check out these links:






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