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Protecting yourself from the dangers of rip currents

Posted at 7:19 AM, Aug 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-12 07:33:17-04

OTTAWA COUNTY — Living near the lakeshore is a draw for many in West Michigan, but Lake Michigan can be unforgiving at times. Every summer we hear of drownings and this year is no different. In fact, many times rip currents are the silent but deadly culprit.

Sgt. Eric Westveer with the Ottawa County Marine Unit says there has been an uptick in drownings compared to years past.

"I can't specifically point my finger to one thing because each of our drownings have had different factors, but three of them were directly related to rip currents this year," he said.

Sgt. Westveer met up with our crew at Holland State Park where one of the highest number of drownings happen in the county due to rip currents.

So, just what exactly is a rip current? A powerful, narrow channel of fast moving water. Sgt. Westveer says a lot of times you can't see a rip current because they are underneath the waters surface.

"Some signs you can look for are is if there's debris or seaweed in the waterway. If you see it moving away from shore rapidly that could be a sign of a rip current. If you see different color patterns in the water, such as sand moving out, that could be darker than the water around it that could be another sign of a rip current."

What do they feel like? A strong power pulling you into the open water and away from the shore, not necessarily downward.

And what should you do if you happen to get caught in one? First thing, try not to panic. When you try to fight the rip current that's when you get into trouble with exhaustion.

Second, Sgt. Westveer recommends the "flip, float and follow" method. "Try to flip to your back, float and calm yourself. Follow that rip current out until it ends and at that point, swim to the sides of the rip current and make your way back to shore."

And what should you do if you see someone caught in a rip current?

"The first thing you can do is make sure somebody is calling 911 to get further assistance out there. The second thing is look for something that you can throw to that individual, whether it be a life ring at a beach, such as this beach, if it's a rope, anything that you can find to assist them to grab. But the absolute last option would be to enter the water yourself and put yourself into danger as well," Westveer said.

One of the best forms of defense is to stay aware, alert and pay attention to the warnings in place.

"The biggest message I would say is any parks that have the flag system, adhere to those flags. They're up for a reason, they get changed regularly as conditions change. And that red flag means stay out of the water, and we advise that because of safety issues. Also if you do feel like you have go into the water, wear a flotation device of some sort so if you do find yourself in trouble, it will help you stay up and you won't go under."