Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project Works to Reduce Drownings

May 10, 2012

Eighty-seven people drowned in the Great Lakes last year.  That’s tragic and unacceptable, according to Bob Pratt.   In 2007, Pratt founded the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project and started training surfers in lifesaving techniques. 

Now, the group teaches water safety and rescue classes for the general public, all around the Great Lakes region.  Participants learn about rip currents, the signs of drowning, and how to use a surfboard or other flotation device to rescue a person in distress.

Pratt was named 2011 Lifesaver of the year by the National Drowning Prevention Alliance.  WKAR’s Gretchen Millich asked him how water safety on the Great Lakes differs from inland lakes and swimming pools.

BOB PRATT:  The biggest difference that we see from the Great Lakes is the currents and the wave action.  They become the largest cause of drownings on the Great Lakes.  Rip currents are responsible for them and also pier currents. We’re starting to learn more that we actually have a situation on the Great Lakes that’s called a seiche.  It basically means water sloshing back and forth, the same as it does in a bathtub.  So, if we have very strong winds out of the north, and it blows a lot of water to the south end of the lake, when the wind stops, it actually sloshes back.  This can be several inches.  It can be several feet.  When it comes in contact with piers and some other structures, it has to go around those.  So, it can cause very strong currents around the piers at a time when it looks to be relatively calm.

GRETCHEN MILLICH:  One of the things I’ve heard you say is that we should respect the power of the lakes.  What do you mean by that?

PRATT:  The Great Lakes will always win.  You can go out windsurfing, or you can go out surfing, and you can sail on the lakes, but at any time the conditions can change drastically, and you really don’t have a chance.  Interestingly enough, we see most of the rip current drownings occurring moderate conditions. We don’t see them at the times when the wind is blowing 60 or 70 miles an hour and there are 15 or 20 foot waves on the lakes.  We see most of the drownings occurring when there are two to four foot waves, three to six foot waves.  Part of the reason is because people realize when the waves are 20 feet that nobody has any business being out there.  Unfortunately, when the waves are 2 to 4 feet, they have kind of a calming sense, and we think those look fun.  They look playful, and we go out.  If you don’t understand how they work and you don’t have a good swimming ability, they can easily take your life.

MILLICH:  One of the things you teach is how to recognize the signs of drowning.  I worked as a lifeguard when I was in college at a swimming pool, and learned to notice that when people are drowning, they go down very quickly and very quietly.  But that’s in a swimming pool, and you’re up on a lifeguard stand, and you can see it very clearly.  How do you see that on the Great Lakes?

PRATT:  That’s a really important point, because Hollywood has done a huge disservice portraying people drowning as screaming and waving.  People who are drowning can do neither. If you lift your hands up out of the water, you’re going to submerge yourself.  So that’s not going to happen. People are struggling so much just to take their next breath that they can’t scream or yell for help.  So, really the striking thing for most lay people to look at is facial expression.  The people will just have a look of terror on their face.  Typically, eyes very wide, the head will be back, because that actually elevates their mouth only a couple of inches, but it’s a critical couple of inches.  This only lasts from 15 to 45 seconds, before the person submerges.  They may actually submerge a couple of times before they go under, but if you see someone vertical in the water, and their mouth is open, and they have a look of panic on their face, they’re probably in deep trouble.

MILLICH:  The people who work with you on the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, a lot of them are surfers who surf the Great Lakes.  But how do you teach somebody who’s just the average person who’s going to the beach to enjoy the beach with their family.

PRATT:  The reason that we focus on surfers is that surfers are aware of the way the lakes work, how waves occur and where they occur.  They already have a flotation device with them, the surfboard or a boogie board.  They have thermal protection if the water’s cold.  So they’re in a perfect position to make the rescues.  For parents and caregivers, it’s much more important for them to be proactive and to prevent a drowning situation from happening than have to react to it when it does happen.  But when it does happen, it’s very important that they do not become a victim themselves.  We have several tragic incidents across the Great Lakes every year where would-be rescuers also drown.  The big thing is to try to keep your panic under control, make sure that someone is calling 911, so there’s advanced help getting there.  If you have something that floats, get something that floats to the person.  We’re really advocating for throw rings and other safety devices on beaches and piers, so that people have some kind of flotation device that they can either throw out to the person or take out to the person.