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When you visit the Great Lakes it’s important to know about the hazards you may face. Staying aware and alert is what will keep you safe in the dynamic conditions found on their beaches.

“Dangerous currents and breaking waves are common in the Great Lakes region. Rip currents, other currents, and river outlets found near piers (also known as breakwaters/breakwalls) are extremely dangerous for swimmers and can lead to drownings”. (Michigan Sea Grant, member of the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium) 

What you should do when first arriving at the beach

Before entering the water, talk with a lifeguard or beach patrol. No one will know the current water conditions better than they will. If you are at an unguarded beach, which most are, Steer Clear of the Pier, if one is present. Swim at least 100 yards away from the structure. Also, remember if you see whitewater waves are at least 3 feet and dangerous currents may be present. The waves alone pose a danger as well.

What to Know 
To stay safe, you need to stay aware of the weather and what is going on around you.
Even small waves can hit you with the force of a car! Getting knocked down or pinned to the sand can cause serious injury.

What to Do
Before leaving for the beach check the official forecast.   
Arrive knowing the local weather forecast. Look to see if there are statements regarding waves, dangerous currents, or other drowning hazards.
Be prepared by having United States Coast Guard approved life jackets, as well as flotation devices like a boat flotation cushion with you. Know the address of the beach should you need to call for help, as well as the location of the life stations on the beach equipped with life rings that could be thrown to someone in trouble.

Always remember: if you want to stay safe at the beach, respect the power of the Lake!

Drowning Hazards

The major drowning hazards at Great Lakes beaches are:  

+Short Period Wind Waves

+Longshore Currents

What to Know
In strong shore parallel flow, longshore currents occur.
These currents will exert a force on you making it difficult to remain in front of your spot on the beach. The current will push you down the beach over time.
Longshore currents can push you into places you do not want to go such as piers, rocks.
Children are especially susceptible to these currents in between the first and second sand bars. 

What to Do
To get out of a longshore current, swim directly back to the beach.

+Structural Currents

What to Know 
The pier (steel, concrete, rock) structures focus strong currents.
The water has nowhere else to go but out along the pier. (Grand Haven pier is 1/4 mile long!). 
The current is often too strong to swim back into (i.e., toward the beach).
Swimming out of the current sideways will likely send you back into oncoming large waves.

What to Do
Don’t put yourself in this situation.
Do not swim within 100 yards of the pier, especially the side with incoming waves.
Do not pier jump as you could be jumping directly into a structural current.
If caught in the current next to the pier get the attention of people on the pier. Try to make it to a ladder. At the very least float to conserve energy.
If you want to help, throw a life ring or flotation device, if possible.

+Classic Rip Currents

What to Know
Rip currents can form in gaps in sandbars.
Water can surge offshore through the gap after it washes up on the beach from a wave.

What to Do
If you are being pulled away from shore…lake-ward, not directly adjacent to a pier,
stay calm to conserve energy and assess your options for escape.
Float with the current in a horizontal swimming position to conserve energy until the current slows.
Then swim parallel to shore until out of the current.
When you are out of the current, swim back to shore.

+Outlet Currents

What to Know
Outlet currents can be found where rivers and streams empty into the Great Lakes. The flow of water from the river or stream can move quickly. As it enters the open water of a lake, it may take awhile for that current to dissipate. Pair that with currents that are present in the lake and the situation can become dangerous.

What to Do
While they are tempting to swim in because they are often warmer than the lake water, avoid swimming in or near outlets. Swim up or down the beach away from where the river or stream is entering the lake.

+Channel Currents

What to Know 
A channel current is like a river running parallel to shore. With a channel current, typically there is an island or structure such as a large group of rocks not far from shore. A channel current forms when the flow of water speeds up as it goes between the island and shore, like a bottleneck. This is made worse by the presence of a submerged or partially submerged sandbar connecting the beach to the island, which allows pressure to build behind the water and waves until it breaks through. When the wind speed increases, the waves also increase in intensity, and this causes the current to become stronger and faster.

What to Do
The best escape route is to swim to the shore, not the sandbar. Do not attempt to swim between nearshore islands and the shore.

Remember, if caught in a dangerous current, flip on your back, float, and follow the current (or the safest path out of the water). Swim along the shore until able to swim toward the beach. If caught in a structural current try to reach a ladder. If you are too tired, keep floating and try to signal for help.

Waves and Piers

What to Know
Waves are chaotic near piers.
Waves reflect off the piers on the incoming wave side.
Reflected waves combine with incoming waves to produce even steeper/larger waves.
The piers are solid (rock and concrete) add to the wave threat.
“Combined waves” occur near piers which makes waves larger near piers.
They are very difficult to swim in.
Threat increases significantly due to currents flowing along the pier. We call these currents structural currents in the Great Lakes.

What to Do
Steer Clear of the Pier! Swim at least 100 yards away from pier structures. Set up your beach spot up or down the beach away from the pier.
Rope off near the pier. Designate swimming areas away from pier structures.

Additional Resources