Great Lakes drownings are becoming an epidemic

Nearly fifty people have already drowned in the Great Lakes this year, and there is still about six weeks remaining in the summer swimming season.

These numbers, which have already surpassed the 2011 total for Great Lakes drownings, are astounding and point to an obvious public safety problem.

According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, drownings in Lake Michigan have doubled this year. Read more here. Three children drowned in Lake Ontario last weekend and a 54-year-old man drowned in Lake Superior, bringing the number of Great Lakes drownings in 2012 to 48.

What the heck is going on? Are rip currents becoming more common or intense in the lakes? Are more people swimming in the lakes? Have lifeguard budgets been cut?

I don’t know the answer to those questions but I do know this: Every community around the Great Lakes should be addressing this issue.

Swimmers of all ages need to understand that although these massive bodies of water are called Great LAKES, they are really freshwater SEAS — with fierce currents.

I’ve been caught in rip currents in the Great Lakes and in oceans, and I have to say that I was more terrified by the Great Lakes. Rip currents in the Great Lakes can be subtle and seem to be more unpredictable than those in the Pacific or Atlantic oceans.

I’ve heard sailors say that rough conditions on the Great Lakes are trickier and more menacing than those in many of the world’s oceans.

I don’t want people to be terrified of swimming in the Great Lakes, nor do I want to see government agencies step in with heavy-handed regulations that limit swimming.

The Great Lakes are most appealing to body surfers when the waves are high. But that is also when the lakes are most dangerous.

Most beaches use a flag system to warn of dangerous conditions for swimmers. That system obviously isn’t working (largely because many swimmers ignore the warning flags).

Something more must be done, quickly, to reduce the number of drownings at Great Lakes beaches. This problem — and the resulting body count — is clearly out of control.


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issues rip current warnings for numerous Great Lakes beaches. Find them here.

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2 Responses to Great Lakes drownings are becoming an epidemic

  1. tcabala says:

    I think the biggest reason for the problem is that people simply don’t respect the Great Lakes. I remember when my two children were growing up and we went to the beach. I have to admit to hating it, because I did not take my eyes off them for a second. It wasn’t fun for me! Plus, as they got older they wanted to bring friends with them. I said no, as I did not want what I saw as a huge responsibility– watching someone else’s children swimming in Lake Michigan. I did make sure that my kids had swimming lessons, but even now, when they are adults, I caution them if they go to the Big Lake and I emind them of the rip tides. I think one thing we need to be doing is having swimming lessons right in Lake Michigan so we can teach how to escape a rip tide.

  2. Jody says:

    Very interesting post! Education is the key.

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