Scientists work to better predict dangerous Great Lakes currents

Jun 6, 2013

As summer water temperatures warm up, more people are enticed into big waves in the Great Lakes, and warnings about dangerous currents are being posted at more beaches.

The number of people who have drowned or been rescued has gone up in each of the last three years.

Jamie Racklyeft is one of the lucky ones.

Last summer, he was standing waist deep in heavy surf here at Van’s Beach in Leland.

He’s in his late 40’s, tall and lean, a fair swimmer. So he sensed no danger.

"The next thing I knew it was up to my neck, and then pretty quickly it was over my head."

“Pretty soon I noticed I was up more to my chest. And I thought well I should head back in. And I was sort of moon-walking as I walked toward shore I realized I was still being pushed out faster than I was walking in. And then the next thing I knew it was up to my neck, and then pretty quickly it was over my head,” he says.

Racklyeft had heard about rip tides in the ocean and knew enough to swim parallel to the shore to try to break free.

But he says the waves were relentless.

Every few seconds, they knocked him to the bottom again and he came up sputtering for breath. He lost his sense of direction and was tiring quickly when the full impact of what was happening hit him.

“This is how I’m going to die. Right here, where I’ve been coming my whole life on a beautiful summer day that seemed so safe. And I have no chance to say goodbye to anyone,” says Racklyeft.

Pulled to safety

He says doesn’t remember much of what happened next.

Things got dark and quiet.

Then he felt like he was being laid down in the sand and he heard voices asking, “are you all right?”

Apparently, a couple on the beach heard him yelling and commandeered a kayak to get to him and pull him out.

To this day, he doesn’t know who they are.

In the ambulance, he remembers hearing talk about the need to close Van’s Beach.

But less than an hour later, a sixteen-year old boy from Leland drowned in the same spot where Racklyeft was rescued.

Making better predictions

Guy Meadows is with the Center for the Great Lakes at Michigan Technological University.

“Over the last several years, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of deaths that have been attributed to rip currents,” says Meadows.

He’s been studying currents in the lakes probably longer than anyone else.

At the northern end of Lake Michigan, there’s a stretch of wide sandy beach that runs along Highway 2 west of the Mackinaw Bridge.

It’s a place notorious for big waves and strong currents where a number of people have drowned or come close to drowning.

Meadows and his research team are using underwater instruments here to map the bottom.

They’ll also use a new form of radar, called x-band, to measure how fast the water is moving both in the waves and in the currents.

“We’re working very closely with National Weather Service on being able to more accurately forecast the conditions that lead to the development of rips and then ultimately we’d really like to be able to forecast for which particular beaches rip currents would develop under a given storm,” he says.    

Efforts are stepping up for more safety training at state parks and in beach towns around the lakes.

Jamie Racklyeft is getting involved, traveling around the state, telling his story.

“If I had done what I’ve heard since then, they recommend flip, float and follow. Flip over on your back so you’re less likely to breathe in water and it’s easier to swim. Float wherever the current takes you until it gradually lets you break free. And then follow the path of least resistance, which isn’t what I was doing. I was definitely fighting too hard,” he says.

There’s an even simpler rule, especially for parents with young kids: when in doubt don’t go out.

Michigan SeaGrant offers these tips for how to tell when a dangerous current might be present on its website about rip currents:

  • A break in the incoming wave pattern.
  • A channel of churning, choppy water.
  • A line of foam or debris moving seaward.
  • A difference in water color.
  • For channel currents, a sandbar connecting the mainland to an island.