Jim Gallie

Ludington State Park Manager Jim Gallie tries through a bag rope as Michigan Sea Grant's Elizabeth LaPorte watches during water rescue training Tuesday, June 10, 2014, at Ludington State Park.

Several agencies take part

More than a few lessons were given during an afternoon training session Tuesday at Ludington State Park that concluded with a time for area park, forest service, beach patrol, law enforcement personnel and others to try their hand at tossing a life ring or a bag rope.

Bob Pratt of Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project encouraged the 20 or so people to shed their worries about how they think they’d look throwing the life-saving devices. He asked them when’s a better time to learn: in front of other responders during a practice session or when someone in the water’s life is depending on a good throw?

So with Pratt’s encouragement and guidance, and help from Elizabeth LaPorte of Michigan Sea Grant, participants took their shot at landing a life ring or rope bag over the shoulder of the targeted person in distress, in this case shoes or other objects stuck in the sand in front of the Lake Michigan beach house.

The session culminated a couple hours of training in the types and differences of Great Lakes currents, with the clear message of: no matter the type of current, a current can present a potentially fatal hazard in certain conditions.

Among the participants were Ludington and Mears State Park personnel, two members of the Ludington Beach Patrol, Mason County Emergency Management Coordinator Liz Reimink, Mason County Sheriff's Office representative Lou Mantho, MDNR and U.S. Forest Service personnel.

They were told by Ron Kinnunen, also of Michigan Sea Grant though working out Marquette, that data being analyzed is showing new information about rip currents. Rip currents form when waves are high and water rushes away from the beach. At times rip currents can be so strong that they can carry a swimmer or a person wading quickly into deep water.

New mapping is discovering that in many locations rip currents seem to reoccur in predictable spots, Kinnunen said.

Some of that mapping is detailing where and what the potential is for rip currents along Great Lakes state park beaches. In Ludington, most of the state park beach is low potential with the highest area being a “moderate” at the Sable River outlet. There are no areas in Ludington State Park or Mears State Park in Pentwater, according to the map shown Tuesday, at severe risk. The northern shore of Lake Michigan along U.S 2 in the Upper Peninsula is riddled with red-coded “severe” predictions by comparison.

That said, LaPorte told the group, the shoreline from Ludington south along Lake Michigan has had a lot of incidents in recent years and is of special concern.

Structural currents, such as along the Ludington and Pentwater breakwaters, also are very dangerous, they noted.

Longshore currents might also be present. In rough weather with high winds and big waves, the currents all can get worse, but the emphasis Tuesday was on the special dangers of structural and rip currents.

Kinnunen told of efforts in the U.P. to create beach stations that include life rings, bag ropes and a floating board. There’s an effort afoot to place life jackets at state park beaches, but that may hinge on liability questions and the matter is in the Legislature.

What is known, LaPorte said, is that too often when someone gets in trouble in the water, a would-be rescuer also gets in trouble.

Kinnunen and LaPorte offered some advice:

• Children can’t float. Parents should have children wear a life jacket when swimming.

•If attempting a rescue, first try to do so from land by throwing a life ring, a rope bag or anything that floats — an empty cooler, for instance.

•If that fails and one has to swim out to the person in distress, push something in front of you that the person can grab onto because it is almost certain the person in distress will grab for whatever reaches them first and if it is a swimmer, both can be pulled down.

• They encouraged communities to work together to add and outfit beach rescue stations. A grant is funding such equipment at 10 Michigan State Park beaches including Ludington and Mears, but funds are not available for municipal or county beaches at this time.

While the participants practiced tossing bags and life rings, LaPorte noted that Ludington State Park is fairly well-marked at three locations with flags. Different colors being flown note conditions. A green flag, such as was flying Tuesday, means it is safe to swim. A yellow flag advises caution due to conditions. A red flag means conditions are dangerous and people should stay out of the water and enjoy other activities on the beach, according to LaPorte.

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