Donielle Flynn

View from South Beach in South Haven

(*Updated 2-20-2024) 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. We head Up North or West to our chosen lakes and make the most of summer. Some of my favorite memories include the waters of our Great Lakes. I love the Great Lakes, but we need to up our game when it comes to education and awareness of the dangers. This is particularly important when on the beaches of Lake Michigan. Understanding Lake Michigan rip currents is important.

I was 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 informed me 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.  In the end, 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. The parking 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? defines a rip current as “Rip currents are powerful, narrow channels of fast-moving water that are prevalent along the East, Gulf, and West coasts of the U.S., as well as along the shores of the Great Lakes.

    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.

    The mother of one of the drowning victims in South Haven created a Facebook group to help raise awareness of the dangers of rip currents and the need for lifeguards. The page is called “Save Lives… Hire Lifeguards” if you would like to join. Hopefully, we are finally seeing some forward movement in South Haven regarding lifeguards.

  • 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. Rip currents are also more likely at low tide. Ocean Today’s article on rip currents gets a lot more detailed.  Check it out on the link below.

    Rip Current Survival Guide

    DR. GREG DUSEK: A rip current is a narrow, fast-moving channel of water that starts near the beach and extends offshore through the line of breaking waves. If you do get caught in a rip current, the best thing you can do is stay calm.

  • More People Have Drowned in Lake Michigan Than Any Other Great Lake

    Lake Michigan also 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. Click On Detroit takes an in-depth look at the number of drownings in each of the Great Lakes:

    Great Lakes drownings: A look at the data from 2010 to today

    Anywhere from dozens to over 100 drownings have been reported each year across the five Great Lakes in the last decade.

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

    In a nutshell: money.  Communities that have had lifeguards in the past have often cited “finances” as the reason for discontinuing their lifeguard programs.  Others say “staffing issues” and still others feel the “flag system” is adequate. MLive takes a look at the possible answers to a difficult question:

    Why most Lake Michigan beaches don't have lifeguards despite repeated drownings

    Calls for lifeguards are growing more urgent following several drownings at Michigan beaches.

  • What Is the Flag System?

    Green means good weather, yellow means caution and red means stay out of the water. The beaches have the flag somewhere in the vicinity of 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. 

    South Haven Beach Flag Program - South Haven Area Chamber of Commerce, MI

    "We want people to realize when the lake is too rough long before they arrive at our beaches," said SHAES executive director Brandon Hinz. "Unfortunately, the lake in its fury is so inviting that many people upon arrival at the beaches tend to disregard the red flags which are intended to signal they must to stay out of the water.

    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 and having staff to change it in a timely fashion. This especially holds true for tourists who aren’t aware of the very real dangers of rip currents.


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