Donielle Flynn

Weekdays 10 a.m. - 3 p.m.

View from South Beach in South Haven

The Great Lakes are a source of Michigan pride.

Who didn’t learn “HOMES” (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior) in their school days? I remember it like it was yesterday. It’s a Michigan summertime rite-of-passage to head Up North or West to our chosen lakes and make the most of summer. Some of my favorite memories of being in the water of one of our Great Lakes. The thing that doesn’t get mentioned much is the need for education and respect for the Great Lakes, particularly when on the beaches of Lake Michigan. Understanding Lake Michigan rip currents is important.

I was recently on South Beach in South Haven… August 9th, 2022. Two unresponsive swimmers were carried out of the water; neither survived.  I watched as two people were desperately given CPR on the beach and taken away in ambulances, praying that by some miracle they had survived.  It was beyond heartbreaking.  I watched the boy’s mother crumple to the ground on the beach when she realized what had happened and there was nothing anyone could do. As a parent, it hit me hard.  These drownings were most likely the result of rip currents.

Most Lake Michigan Beaches Do Not Have Lifeguards

I contacted the South Haven Visitors Bureau and The Chamber of Commerce.  I suggested they raise the price of beach parking to help cover the cost of bringing in lifeguards for North and South beaches.  Kate Hosier, the chair of the South Haven Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors returned my call.  The response: “It’s not that easy.”  She said they had tried to bring in lifeguards but couldn’t find enough staff.  Kate said that they had “discussed it as a community” last year and they found that lifeguards were not warranted.  She also told me that “people can drown when lifeguards are on duty too.”  While I appreciate that Kate returned my phone call, she was not as receptive as I had hoped.  I was left with a feeling of “mind your own business.”

In researching this topic, I found that Muskegon started charging for parking in 2020 and it has raised a million dollars in its second year (2021).  If I had to pay $15 dollars to park (instead of the current fee of $10 a day), I would gladly pay that to have lifeguards. Before we get into that, let’s all get some lifesaving knowledge:

Understanding Lake Michigan’s Rip Currents

  • What's a Rip Current?

    Wikipedia defines a rip current as A rip current, often simply called a rip, is a specific kind of water current that can occur near beaches with breaking waves. A rip is a strong, localized, and narrow current of water that moves directly away from the shore.  A rip current cuts through the lines of breaking waves like a river running out to sea.”

    I think a lot of folks think if they are standing, then they’re safe, but when you start getting into chest-height water and 3-5 foot waves, you risk accidentally swimming or even walking into a rip current.  A rip current can’t hold objects (or people) down, but it does carry them out past the waves.  Knowing how to handle a rip current can be the difference between life and death.

  • How to Survive a Rip Current

    1) STAY CALM

    2) Don’t try to fight the current.

    3) FLOAT until you get your bearings.

    4) Yell and wave for help

    You can’t swim back through the rip current… you’ll just get tired out.  You can swim parallel to shore until you see breaking waves and follow that path back to shore.  Experts recommend that lifeguards make rip current rescues because of the risk of a double drowning trying to make a rescue without the proper knowledge. (per Ocean Today)

    Wave conditions of two to three feet (or higher) come with an increased potential for rip currents.  Whether it’s a sunny day or bad weather, rip currents can still occur.  There are some visual cues that can help you spot rip currents. For starters, look for flat spots where waves aren’t breaking. When I was on South Beach, I noticed a spot where water was pooling and then being sucked back into the water.  It struck me as odd, but I didn’t know anything about rip currents then.  The main point for me is NO WAVES.  As a swimmer, I would probably head toward a spot with no waves, but it is actually a warning sign of a possible rip current. Ocean Today’s article on rip currents gets a lot more detailed.  CLICK HERE to check it out.   Rip currents are also more likely at low tide.

  • 69 People Have Drowned in the Great Lakes in 2022

    33 of the 69 people that have drowned were in Lake Michigan (via MLive). Lake Michigan has the most beach space. Of those beaches, I can only find TWO communities that have lifeguards, Silver Beach in St. Joseph and New Buffalo Beach.

    Between 2021 and 2022, drownings are up 17% in Lake Michigan alone according to South Haven’s Channel 3 (WWMT).  That data number was published in July.  There have been more drownings since then.

  • Why Don't Most Lake Michigan Beaches Have Lifeguards?

    In a nutshell: money.  Communities that have had lifeguards in the past have often site “finances” as the reason for discontinuing their lifeguard programs.  Others say “staffing issues” and still others feel the “Flag system” is adequate.  MLive has a great article that goes into this deeper.

  • What Is the Flag System?

    Green means good weather, yellow is caution, and red means stay out of the water.  The beaches have the flag somewhere on the beach.  Most beaches have a flag system.  I wasn’t aware of it on South Beach in South Haven until August 9th when the couple drowned.  There’s one small flag up by the parking lot, but they do offer a text system too.  Here’s the South Beach flag and signage.  According to Kate Hosier, South Haven has “way more” signage than most of the Lake Michigan beaches.

    South Haven's South Beach

    South Haven’s South Beach flag and signage

    To subscribe to the free Beach Flag messaging system, send a text message with the word “Beaches” to 888777.  According to Brian Hinz, the SHAES executive director, “In a return message you will receive the current beach flag postings,” said Hinz.  There’s also an option to get alerts whenever the flag goes to red.  CLICK HERE for more on their system.

    When the two people drowned on August 9th, the flag was yellow.  It was changed to red after.  The biggest hurdle with the flag system is being AWARE of it… especially tourists who aren’t aware of the very real dangers of RIP CURRENTS.


  • South Haven

    I love vacationing in South Haven.  We’ve made it a destination for years, but I can’t go again until they get lifeguards.  Rip currents have to do with waves, but they are more likely on beaches with piers and sandbars.   It’s frustrating that the community doesn’t see this as more of an issue.  It’s a tourist destination.  The chances of everyone being properly educated on rip currents are not likely.  The town is great, the people are friendly.  I hate to not support the restaurants and hotels, but the message I got from the South Haven Chamber of Commerce did not sound like anything would be changing any time soon.  These drownings aren’t drunk people doing stupid crap.  These are vacationers going for a swim at 12:30 pm.

    South Haven has every right not to change a thing, but I also have the choice to go to beaches where I think life has more value.  The only way I can support the change I think is needed is to not take my dollars there (or to any Great Lakes beach that deems lifeguards “unwarranted”).  I’ll miss it, but I don’t ever want to witness people’s lives being changed forever or outright ended when there was a chance that it didn’t have to happen that way.  Maybe lifeguards can’t save everyone, but they can save someone.  That is worth it, in my estimation.

    South Haven

    South Haven

    AGAIN: This is not meant to slam South Haven.  It’s considered one of Michigan’s Best beaches.  Maybe I wouldn’t be so upset if I hadn’t witnessed what I did, but I was there and I think it’s something that needs to change.  I am not suggesting South Haven shoulder the entire burden of financing lifeguards, but to just say “it was decided that they (lifeguards) were not warranted?”  No way.

Sign me up for the 94.7 WCSX email newsletter!

Stay connected to all things Classic Rock, join the WCSX Workforce- it’s free and you can win prizes, concert tickets and VIP experiences.

By clicking "Subscribe" I agree to the website's terms of Service and Privacy Policy. I understand I can unsubscribe at any time.