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Rip Current Safety in the Great Lakes

family swimming in the great lakes

With temperatures climbing, you may find yourself heading to one of our great lakes looking to cool off. While cooling down, beachgoers need to be aware of a hidden danger that lurks in the water, rip currents. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a rip current is a powerful, narrow channel of fast-moving water flowing away from the shore. They can form at low spots or breaks in sandbars. Not only do these occur in the ocean, but they are common on the Great Lakes. Rip currents can potentially sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea because the water does not pull you under, but rather, pulls you away from the shore at speeds of up to 8 feet per second. 

The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project (GLSRP), a non-profit whose mission is to eradicate drownings by being the leader of Great Lakes water safety, has tracked the number of drownings in the Great Lakes beginning in 2010. Since that time, there have been 843 deaths with 97 of those in 2019. Spotting a rip current can be difficult. Typically, it is easier to see at an elevated position. You are looking for areas where waves aren’t breaking, so there are flat spots in a line of breaking waves. People often misunderstand and think that rip currents only occur during bad weather days, but you can have strong rip currents on sunny days in waves only about two or three feet high. 

If you find yourself in a rip current, one of the most important things you can do is stay calm. Then, call and wave for help to alert other beachgoers. When being pulled, you want to float and not try to swim back to shore. The current will tire you out and increase your likelihood of drowning. Instead, you want to swim out of the rip by going parallel to the shore along the beach and then follow the breaking waves back to the shore at an angle. If you find yourself in danger, you can also try to stay in place by treading water. Other ways to stay safe while out swimming are to only swim in designated buoyed areas, take note of the presence of any flotation devices, never swim alone, and keep a close eye on children.  

Even before heading out to the water, you can see whether it is safe to swim by using the beach flag warning system. All designated state park swim areas on the Great Lakes use flags as a way to communicate the current water conditions. A red flag warning means to stop, stay on the beach, and do not enter the water to swim. A yellow flag warning means to use caution, and watch for dangerous currents and high waves. Finally, a green flag warning means that you may enter the water but stay aware of changing conditions. It is important to note that the conditions can change quickly so pay attention to any flag changes. 

Having fun and cooling down in the water is something everyone looks forward to during the warmer weather months. Knowing how to spot a rip current or what to do if you get pulled in by one, could save your life. Stay safe this summer.