Prevent a Drowning! It’s up to all of us to know how to

Prevent a Drowning!

It’s up to all of us to know how to

1) recognize when a swimmer is in danger of drowning

2) know what action to take to save the swimmer’s life.  


Bob Pratt, retired East Lansing Fire Marshall and co-founder of the                                    Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project                                                                                             with Joe, Chris & Mike Matulis at the Matuli PaddleSurf exhibit, March 1, 2013,          Quietwater Symposium at Michigan State University.
Bob Pratt, retired East Lansing Fire Marshall and co-founder of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project with Joe, Chris & Mike Matulis at the Matuli PaddleSurf exhibit, March 1, 2013, Quietwater Symposium at Michigan State University.


Bob Pratt gave an important presentation to ‘a standing room only’ crowd at the Quietwater Symposium at Michigan State University.  As we move closer to the season of pool parties, lake swimming and boating adventures, it is important to become educated about what to look for and how to respond to water emergencies. Here is a summary of some of the information that Bob shared.

Critical Information for Preventing Drowning Deaths

  • People do not recognize when a swimmer is in trouble.   The phenomena of drowning does not attract attention. Most people think that a swimmer in danger of drowning will be waving their arms and shouting out for help.  Wrong!   Swimmers who are in the trouble cannot flail their arms.  If they reach their arms out of the water, they will immediately sink under the water.  Instead, they try to grab the surface of the water, and they can’t yell because they are gasping for breath. Humans automatically slip into what is called an Instinctive Drowning  Response.   Many people would look at such a swimmer and think that he or she is playing, but this swimmer is in serious trouble.    You can learn more about this by viewing the following video:


  • Keep a close eyes on your children when they are swimming.  Sometimes parents may get distracted by other activity in the area, but drowning can occur within twenty to forty-five seconds of getting into danger.


  • If you are hosting a pool party with children, use the Watch Card system to ensure that all swimmers are being observed. Make a Watch Card (index card, exc.) and give it to an adult who is willing to accept the responsibility of keeping an eye on all of the swimmers.  If the Watcher has to leave the pool area, the card should be given to another competent and willing adult.  This strategy will prevent drowning accidents.


  • If you see someone in danger, you should grab something that floats and then head out into the water – a small cooler, a life jacket, a paddleboard, a boat cushion, etc.  (It’s a good idea to always pack a floating device when you head out to the beach.)  Making a rescue is very difficult if you don’t have some kind of floating device. 


  • Put your own safety first.  Too often a would-be rescuer is not prepared to make the rescue (lacks floating device, strength, swimming ability, etc.) and finds him or herself in a losing battle with waves and deep water.


  • Wear life preserver every time you are on your watercraft.  People who wear a life jacket have a less than one percent chance of drowning is they fall into the water


Bob demonstrated the use of a Belt Pack Personal Floatation Device that can be worn around the waist.  It does not restrict movement and , in case of an emergency it is easily inflated by pulling the ring that triggers the release of CO2 from a canister. Most people do not wear a lifejacket when boating.  They keep it on the deck and they think that they will be able to put it on when they are in the water.  Bob explained that trying to put a life jacket on when you are in the water is extremely difficult.

  • Standup Paddle Surfboards are considered watercraft so you have to have a Personal Floatation Device onboard. If you use your Stand Up Paddleboard at night, you need running lights.  Standup Paddleboards are very good devices for rescues.  The victim can rest on the board while being towed to the shore.  Surfers and SUP surfers can be make a big contribution to drowning prevention across Michigan and in the Great Lakes. 

Looking to get envolved? The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project is an excellent resource for learning about water safety.

Lifesaving for Surfers, Surf Rescue Project

Third Coast Ocean Force practice rescue techniques
Photo by Cindy Matulis

Many surfers in the Great Lakes are unsung heroes who have saved many lives because they have spotted swimmers in trouble while catching waves. Surfers have a strong knowledge of the dangers the water presents, and they are often in a good position to spot and make a rescue.

Surf Lifesaving has deep roots in the Midwest. Tom Blake was a pioneer waterman from Wisconsin, and has been the lead designer for surfing and lifeguard gear. Blake invented the surfboard fin, hollow paddle board and the lifeguard buoy. Following in the tradition of connecting surfing to lifesaving, a group of Great Lake surfers have formed an organization called the Third Coast Ocean Force designed to educate the public on the dangers of water currents generated from waves.

Eight year Ocean lifeguard Joe Matulis was one of the speakers at the Third Coast Ocean Force Rip Currents conference and workshop held in St. Joseph, Michigan on June 5, 2011. Matulis was asked to share his professional knowledge about spotting potential rescues.

“If you are seeing someone climbing the ladder, you are already too late,” Matulis said. “You are not going to have enough time to get out there.”

There are many earlier signs that can be seen from shore or from the water.

“When I am at the beach I look for swimmers that are not in swim attire, swimmers facing the beach and swimmers that are in large groups.” he said.

Classroom discussion by Third Coast Ocean Force
Photo by Cindy Matulis

There are many differences between the Pacific Ocean and Lake Michigan. The beach goers in the Midwest usually don’t experience surf because waves are uncommon in the crowded season. However, a few times every summer, wind generates waves and rip currents are formed on the crowded Midwest beaches. When these unusually large waves occur, the majority of the beach goers are not aware of the dangers that are created. Today, very few Great Lakes beaches have lifeguards on duty. Great Lakes surfers, however, can make a difference for victims of rip currents. Surfers have the ability to navigate through surf and when there are waves in the lakes there are plenty of surfers. It only makes sense that surfers need to be trained to identify possible drowning victims.

Bob Pratt, a former lifeguard and a Great Lakes surfer explained how rip currents can flow out along the concrete piers in Lake Michigan. Compounding the problem of rip currents in the Great Lakes is the fact that these currents are more difficult to spot in the Great Lakes than the ocean. The reason rips are harder to see in the Great Lakes is because rip currents only form when there is surf. The surf is normally only big when the weather is stormy and cloudy. Stormy weather makes it harder to see the differences of water color because of the overcast skies.

The waves in the lakes also have a much shorter interval period and therefore there are twice as many waves that swimmers have to contend with. The waves on the Great Lakes may break every seven seconds compared to a south swell in Southern California that would have about a twenty second wave interval.

After the classroom training session the class went to the beach to practice rescue techniques. In addition to Great Lakes surfers, area water rescue teams also attended the training session to learn about using a surfboard to assist a drowning victim. The class practiced these techniques and discussed how to triangulate a submerged swimmer, how to handle a possible spinal cord injury victim and where to enter the water in different possible swell situations.

This is an important step forward for protecting swimmers in the Great Lakes.