CADILLAC — It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.
A family outing at a local beach is interrupted by sheer panic as you realize you can no longer see your child, who was playing in the water just moments earlier.
Sometimes this story ends with relief when the child eventually turns up, perhaps playing with friends on a nearby jungle gym.
Other times this story ends in tragedy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the leading cause of death for children aged 1-4 and one of the top three causes of death for people under 29 years old.
From 2005-2014, there were an average of 3,536 fatal unintentional drownings (non-boating related) annually in the United States — about 10 deaths per day. An additional 332 people died each year from drowning in boating-related incidents.
The World Health Organization in 2014 published a report that described drowning as “a serious and neglected public health threat‘ claiming the lives of 372,000 people a year worldwide — 40 a day.
Due to inconsistencies in how some places record drowning deaths, the World Health Organization estimates the actual death toll in the U.S., Australia and Finland is actually 39-50% higher than official statistics indicate.
“Whether it is small children slipping unnoticed into a pond, pool or well; adolescents swimming under the influence of alcohol or drugs; passengers on vessels that capsize; or residents of coastal communities struck by floods, the daily toll of this leading global killer continues its quiet rise,‘ the report states.
In Northern Michigan, where lakes abound and swimming and boating are some of the most popular forms of recreation, drowning deaths occur on a semi-regular basis.
In Lake City, a community group organized a program to provide free swim safety lessons to elementary students following the drowning death of a youth in Lake Missaukee several years ago.
Mary Crisenbery, aquatic director for the Cadillac Area YMCA, said she believes more people are becoming aware to the dangers of drowning, especially for young people, who in the majority of cases drown within 10 feet of safety.
“I think people realize it’s a really important life skill to know how to swim,‘ Crisenbery said.
When she’s instructing youngsters at the YMCA, Crisenbery tries to drill home some basic safety skills.
No. 1 — Always wear a properly-fitted life jacket: this applies to not only when one is in the water but also when on a boat or standing on a dock or near water.
Crisenbery said even those who consider themselves seasoned swimmers should still wear a life jacket; you never know what can happen in the water, such as leg cramps or some other medical condition, that could put one at risk of drowning.
“Inflatable devices or water wings are not the best measure and can lose air or slip off,‘ Crisenbery said. “A US Coast Guard approved PFD is the best measure for safety.‘
No 2 — Learn how to support yourself on your back in the water: this allows for breathing, calling for help and alternating between resting and moving toward solid ground.
No. 3 — Reach, throw, don’t go: someone who is panicking in the water can become dangerous to those who are trying to help them.
If you notice someone struggling in the water, attempt to reach out to them or throw a flotation device rather than swimming to them.
“If a swimmer is showing signs of aquatic distress — such as showing efforts to keep their head back and mouth out of the water and with an unsupportive kick and ineffective arm movements — that can quickly become an emergency,‘ Crisenbery said. “Do not put yourself at risk unless you are trained in water rescue.‘
No. 4 — Never swim alone.
No. 5 — Never combine alcohol or drugs with swimming.
No. 1 — Get your kids into the habit of always asking for permission before they enter the water.
No. 2 — Always closely supervise children when they are in the water; that means putting down the phone. “We all know how much time can pass looking at your phone and you don’t even realize it,‘ Crisenbery said.
No. 3 — If a child is missing, always check the water first.
Swimming in the Great Lakes
According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, 2018 was the deadliest year of this decade for number of drowning fatalities in the Great Lakes, at 117.
Lake Michigan had the highest number of drownings at 42, followed by 36 in Lake Erie and 25 in Lake Ontario.
Last year, Bridge Magazine interviewed Bob Pratt, executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, who said in some ways, the Great Lakes are more perilous than oceans, whose salt makes floating easier.
Great Lakes waves are typically smaller than those in the ocean, but they come far more frequently, said Pratt. Survivors of near-drownings describe being pummeled.
A characteristic of big lakes and oceans not present in smaller bodies of water like Lake Cadillac is the rip tide.
Pratt said rip tides are created when waves that pile up close to shore attempt to find a way back into the main water body, cutting a path through the sand bar.
He said the way to escape this current is to swim parallel to shore and then back to safety; don’t try to resist the rip tide because you’ll lose every time and get carried further out into the lake.
From the data collected by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, Pratt said they determined the following trends:
• Great Lakes drowning victims are overwhelmingly male — Pratt suspects they’re more prone to showboating or carrying out dares.
• The majority of drownings happen near the shoreline, typically involving bathers, kayakers, paddle boarders or surfers.
• Life jackets save lives. Only seven of the 640 drownings since 2010 involved people wearing life jackets, and most of those were due to cold waters.