Caption: The author taking a surfing lesson from Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak on Lake Michigan. (Jordan Browne)
By Drew YoungeDyke
Great Lakes drownings are on the rise along with increased participation in outdoor recreation. As people unfamiliar with the dangerous conditions that the Great Lakes can harbor walk piers on high wave days or swim unaware of rip currents, 109 people drowned in the Great Lakes last year, including 56 in Lake Michigan. Already in 2021, 34 people have drowned in the Great Lakes.
It's a serious issue and action should be taken to reduce these incidents. Unfortunately, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR)'s proposed action to ban all water entry on "red flag" days misses the mark by needlessly - and likely inadvertently - restricting surfing, which has never accounted for a drowning incident since the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project began tracking Great Lakes drownings in 2010.
The Michigan DNR has proposed a Land Use Order intended to reduce Great Lakes drownings at its state parks and recreation areas by adopting a rule that a person may not "Exit the state managed beach area for the purpose of entry into the water when entry is prohibited by signage and/or communication by a department employee or their designee."
Its rationale is explained in the background section of the proposed order:
"Recently, safety rescues at Great Lake beaches have occurred at times when the “Red Flag” is flying indicating that wave height is 3-5 feet, or higher, lake conditions are high risk and dangerous. Meaning people are not adhering to the water safety measures and education provided by the Department and are still entering the water. Even more alarming is the observations of people entering the water during these dangerous conditions while a water rescue is occurring."
This is happening despite the department taking preventative steps such as: "buoyed swimming areas, flag warning systems, throw rings and vast amounts of education on water safety."
What this list does not include is hiring and training lifeguards to monitor beaches and provide real-time warnings to beachgoers about dangerous conditions and response in case of distressed swimmers. The DNR is not proposing to hire lifeguards, either. Instead, they will restrict water entry from state park and state recreation beaches on red flag days, described as when waves reach 3-5 feet. However, that's often the minimum wave height needed for Great Lakes surfers to catch and ride waves. By restricting "entering the water" on those days - instead of just restricting "swimming" or "wading" - the DNR will be effectively prohibiting surfing at state parks and recreation areas on the only days with surfable waves.
I'm pretty new to surfing, even though I've been swimming in the Great Lakes my whole life, so I'm still learning about the conditions necessary for surfing the Great Lakes. What I've learned so far, though, from more experienced surfers, is that the best days to surf the Great Lakes are often the worst days for swimming. I can get paddling and stand-up sequence practice as a beginner in smaller waves and flat water, but that's all practice for actually riding bigger waves. The Great Lakes don't have a tide, so all waves are generated by the wind. Wind direction, timing, and fetch all must come together for waves to be big enough to ride, and it's often best when the weather is the worst - like on red flag days.
However, since the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project began tracking Great Lakes drownings in 2010, not a single one of the more than 980 drownings has been related to surfing. This may seem counterintuitive until you realize what goes into trying to surf the Great Lakes. Even as a beginner, I've had to learn about rip currents, fetch, and the bathometry of the lakes. To stay warm and afloat, my equipment includes a 5/4/3 hooded wetsuit with 7mm booties and mitts, and a 10-foot soft-top surfboard to which I'm tethered by an ankle leash.
More experienced surfers usually ride smaller boards, but they are also tethered to a floating object in wetsuits which keep them warm, and they have an even better understanding of both the conditions which generate waves and the dangers they create. Rather than needing rescue, they're frequently the ones rescuing swimmers caught by rip currents or pier walkers swept off by waves. Since the DNR isn't proposing to hire lifeguards, having surfers in the water on those days would be much more likely to prevent drownings than cause any.
In analyzing the drownings that have occurred so far this year and last year in Michigan, as documented by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, the DNR order as written would only address a fraction of the situations that have led to drownings (which could be better addressed with lifeguards) while effectively prohibiting an activity - surfing - which has not led to any drownings.
In the five Great Lakes drownings that have occurred in Michigan this year, none were from swimming during red flag days. One was from ice fishing, two were pier wash-offs or falls, one was a boater, and one was a body found. In the 26 Great Lakes drownings that occurred in Michigan last year, 5 were described pier wash-offs/jumping off pier, one was a missing person who washed ashore, one was unstable ice, one from swimming off a boat, one from kayaking, and 16 from swimming. 8 of the swimmers were described by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project as swimming on either red flag days or in high waves/dangerous currents, and it noted that no lifeguard was on duty for 7 of them, with no mention of a lifeguard on the other.
Eight of the drownings could have been prevented had swimmers not gone into the water on days with high waves, dangerous currents, or with red flags posted. An order such as the one the DNR is proposing may have prevented them, but so too could lifeguards have prevented them with a real-time warning, observation of the swimmers before they got into trouble, and possibly rescue after. The DNR's proposed order would not have prevented the pier wash-offs, or swimmers going too far out or too deep on calmer days. Lifeguards could have.
I do not take any of the drownings lightly, and I think all that we can do to educate people about the Great Lakes conditions and place trained lifeguards on beaches should be done. I was almost a drowning victim when I was twelve years old and camping with my aunts and cousins on Lake Superior. I was caught by a rip current and carried out from shore, struggling to get back. My older cousin swam out and helped me back, swimming flat on the surface of the water. It was terrifying. I support the goal of the DNR to prevent this experience from happening to others.
Good policy is narrowly tailored to address the problem to be solved with minimal collateral impacts. As currently worded, the DNR's proposed land use order might prevent a fraction of the drownings that occur while inadvertently prohibiting surfing at state parks and recreation areas, denying an opportunity for Michiganders to pursue a sport that provides a deep connection to the Great Lakes, requires intricate knowledge of its conditions, and a strong respect for its dangers.
The proposed order could be improved to prevent more drownings without prohibiting surfing by explicitly exempting surfing from the order. There is precedent for this in other places which have enacted red flag ordinances to protect swimmers from themselves. For instance, Destin and Panama City Beach, Florida exempt surfing from their city ordinances against entering the water during double red flag days. Panama City Beach requires surfers to be tethered to their boards for the exemption:
"Recognizing the important role surfers play in aiding distressed swimmers, the City Council exempted surfers attached by a leash to a surfboard. However, rubber rafts, floats, belly boards, skim boards and boogie boards are not considered surf boards."
Similar exemptions for leashed surfers exist in the Outer Banks, North Carolina. Chicago allows surfing at specific beaches on Lake Michigan "at your own risk," recognizing that "conditions that may be “ideal” for surfing may be deemed “red flag days” for swimming. This means that the water is not safe for swimming because it is dangerous."
The DNR could prevent even more drownings, provide a safer experience for beachgoers, and boost local employment opportunities by training and hiring lifeguards at state park and recreation area beaches. However, if that is not currently on the table, they can follow the lead of ocean municipalities with red flag ordinances for swimmers already on the books which have long exempted surfing in recognition of both the nature of the sport, the ability of its participants, and especially in preventing drownings, which is the goal for all of us.
Drew YoungeDyke is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer and a Director of Conservation Partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation, a board member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and a member of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers and the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association.
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