By Coast Guard Senior Chief Tom Rau (ret)
The recent drowning of a six-year-old girl off Sheboygan Wisconsin gives heed to how a casual swim in Lake Michigan can quickly turn into a causality. Despite the valiant CPR efforts of Coast Guardsman Wesley Koran the little girl later died at Sheboygan’s Children’s Hospital after being removed from a life-support system.
Reportably the little girl was standing on a sand bar and walked off into deep water. A jet skier retrieved her and brought her to shore. Another jet skier raced Wesley from the Coast Guard rescue boat to shore where he performed CPR for approximately 15 minutes until paramedics arrived. “When we transported her to the ambulance she flat lined on the cardiac rhythm monitor. Her father was terrible distraught,” said Wesley.
Could the father have saved his little girl? Absolutely. How? Commander Tracy Wannamaker, a seasoned Coast Guard search and rescue responder and mother of three children, addresses the how…. Listen up; it could well save your child’s life.
During 2004, while commander of Coast Group Grand Haven, Commander Wanamaker had the heartbreaking position of telling a mom and dad that their nine-year-old son had drowned in Lake Michigan. “This is the part of my job that keeps me awake at night, the part that I could do without, said Commander Wannamaker. “ As I read through the search paperwork, I noted that this child was only one week younger than my own son. Immediately I was thrust into the ‘what if’ self-questioning that all parents do, and I came up with a few items that all parents or caregivers need to know.” Her points are listed below:
“You are in charge: respect the water. Our beautiful lakes are also very unforgiving at times. You need to understand how the water moves, how deep it is and what is on the bottom. You also need to understand rip currents and explain them to children that are old enough to understand. I make my kids recite what they would do if caught in a rip current every time we go to the lake. The Beach and Pier Safety Task Force, based in Grand Haven, has a useful website that discusses rip currents and other hazards: www.respectthepower.org
“Invest in swim lessons for the whole family. Non-swimming parents can’t help when the children are in trouble in the water, and often get into trouble as well while attempting to help. I can think of nothing worse than watching your child drown because you are not equipped to help him or her. Swim lessons not only teach children how to keep their head above water, but also promote safety and confidence in the water.
“If you or your children cannot swim, a proper-fitting life jacket is a must for both of you. On more than one occasion my kids have fought me on this, but it’s not open for discussion: ‘put it on or you are sitting on the beach.’ Many drownings occur when non-swimmers suddenly find themselves in water over their head. In addition, many ‘good swimmers’ drown because of fatigue, panic or medical issues. Unfortunately, rescuers don’t get called until someone goes under, and there are only a few precious minutes to save a life. Often it’s too late. Pride is never a good excuse for drowning. Wear a life jacket.
“Be vigilant. Don’t take your eyes off of them—we all know how fast the little ones can move, in or out of the water! Know how to respond in case of emergency and run these scenarios through your mind—you may be the one that saves the unsuspecting swimmer. I strongly suggest having available a flotation device like a rescue heaving line with a flotation ball that you can toss to a person struggling in the water. Also, carry a whistle to draw attention to an emergency.
“Avoid Dangerous Waters. Stay within designated swim areas. Do not swim near breakwaters or piers. Turbulent water and wave backlash can overcome the best swimmer and jagged rocks that line breakwaters and piers can inflict lacerations, broken bones, and head injuries. Pay heed to red warning flags or pennants that warn of dangerous surf conditions.
“A myth. There’s a wide-spread belief that an underwater force ‘sucks’ or ‘tows’ a swimmer under. The fact is there is no such thing as an undertow in Lake Michigan. The force that most waders feel pulling at their legs in shallow water results from retreating waves that have washed up onto the beach. A sandbar can act like a dam that traps retreating water that can break down a section of a sand bar, thus creating an opening through which the dammed-up water escapes. This force can carry a person away from the sandbar and into deep water. Do not panic: you are not being sucked under. Float on your back or stomach to negate current effects.
“Do not allow kids to float out into deep water on rubber rafts or inner tubes. Should they separate from the flotation device, they could find themselves in deep water.”
One particular important beach safety item the Commander addressed besides a rescue heaving line was a whistle. Not only does it attract attention it can be used to beckon kids should they wander to far off shore or near hazardous waters like near piers and breakwaters.
A whistle complements a recent brilliant beach safety program implemented by the City of Manistee, 911, the local Revenue Sharing Board, and Rotary club. This joint effort culminated in the deployment of three beach aid stations, allowing beach goers access to safety equipment and 911 access. A whistle would draw attention to an emergency allowing those near the safety beach station to take action.
“We want the public to be able to assist themselves,” said Dave Bachman, Manistee chief of police. I couldn’t agree more with the Chief. Too often it’s too late despite the quick efforts of rescue responders. Those initial critical moments often lay in the hands of the public. It’s your call, take command.
Note: Tom Rau is a retired Coast Guard Senior chief, boating safety columnist, and author of Boat Smart Chronicles, Lake Michigan Devours Its Wounded. The book is a journal of recreational boating rescues he has written about over his 27-year career.
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