Great Lakes Waters Can Take A Savage Toll On Swimmers High winds and dangerous rip currents make swimming in the Great Lakes unpredictable, and sometimes deadly — most beaches have no lifeguards, and hundreds drown in the lakes each year.

Great Lakes Waters Can Take A Savage Toll On Swimmers

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And I'm David Greene with a fact that might surprise you. The Great Lakes have more beach coastline than the East and West coasts combined, but one consequence of that - hundreds of drownings every year. That's partly because the lakes have dangerous currents that are very different from those found in the ocean. Elizabeth Miller reported this story for Great Lakes Today from WCPN Ideastream in Cleveland.

ELIZABETH MILLER, BYLINE: The five Great Lakes border eight states and one Canadian province. They're used for commercial shipping and fishing and for recreational boating and swimming. There's even surfing. But the high waves on these waters can be especially dangerous. According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, just last year, 55 people died in those waters, though not all were due to currents. This year's total already surpasses that. And the project's Bob Pratt says weather may be responsible for the 69 deaths so far this year.

BOB PRATT: We don't get wave action in the summertime until the lake warms up enough so that the warm air makes contact with the warm water.

MILLER: And that leads to dangerous currents and waves. Mark Breederland teaches water safety with the group Michigan Sea Grant. He says wind plays a big role.

MARK BREEDERLAND: It can start out pretty calm. Pretty soon, it picks up. You know, you're out there just enjoying the beach, and you're not really thinking about it. And all of a sudden, man, the waves have come way up from what they were when you first started.

MILLER: The waves come more frequently in the Great Lakes, too. They typically last three to five seconds, while in the ocean, waves last about 10 seconds or longer. And while the waves may look similar, they combine with the wind to produce dangerous currents. Megan Dodson of the National Weather Service says that's especially true on Lake Michigan.

MEGAN DODSON: When you have really strong wind blowing from the west toward the northwest and southwest, that causes the water to pile up near the beaches on western Michigan. You'll get better water piling up. You have a better chance for currents to develop.

MILLER: And the currents aren't always visible from shore. Rip currents are caused by a break in the sandbar underneath the water and can knock you off your feet, pulling you into open waters. Experts say at least 20 people have drowned in Lake Michigan every year since 2010. That's more than any other Great Lake. And with more than 200 beaches in the state, efforts are underway to try and prevent drownings, things like flags and signs warning beachgoers when it's not safe to swim, but that doesn't mean swimmers obey them.

On a recent red-flag day at Michigan's Warren Dunes State Park, beachgoers like Pam Shutts didn't let the chance of dangerous currents keep her or her two daughters out of the water.

PAM SHUTTS: We know there's no lifeguard, so we kind of police each other and kind of keep tabs on where they are.

MILLER: There are no lifeguards at any of Michigan's state parks. Warren Dunes and other Great Lakes beaches rely on signs, and Michigan is working to make those easier to read. But Bob Pratt says it's difficult to know if signs prevent drowning.

PRATT: The patrons that are going to stop and read a warning sign are the patrons that are likely to bring a life jacket to the beach, are likely to already understand about some of the dangers. It's kind of like preaching to the choir.

MILLER: His group holds water safety courses all across the Great Lakes. It shows kayakers and others how to use everyday objects that float - things like footballs and plastic coolers - to help people struggling against a current. And while advocating safe swimming on the Great Lakes remains a challenge, officials continue to push for school water safety courses and lifeguards at every beach.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Miller.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we mistakenly say there are hundreds of drownings each year in the Great Lakes. In fact, as the story states, there were 55 such deaths last year and there have been 69 so far this year.]

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