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Taking water dangers seriously

Boating on Lake Superior can be both fun and dangerous. Boats docked at Ontonagon Marina on Tuesday are ready for some summertime activities. (Photo courtesy of Damian Wolf via the Houghton Daily Mining Gazette)

HOUGHTON — Boating on Lake Superior can be both fun and dangerous. Boats docked at Ontonagon Marina on Tuesday are ready for some summertime activities. Damian Wolf/For the Mining Gazette

As July arrives, many across the Copper Country are continuing their enjoyment of summertime activities. Several of the activities take place in the inland lakes, rivers and the crowned jewel of all the waters, Lake Superior.

With all the enjoyment and smiles Lake Superior and other waters can bring local residents and tourists, it is an unfortunate reality that water recreation also includes a multitude of dangers that can easily result in the demise of those swimming or boating. It was only three weeks ago that a vessel sank in Keweenaw Bay and took the lives of two boaters.

With much more of the summer to come, it is important to become or stay familiar with safety tips out on the water.

Before anyone ventures into the waters for their day’s activities, the first thing one should do is to inform one or more individuals of where and what they are doing. If any emergency situation were to occur and the boater or swimmer could not reach out for help, the informed individuals can reach out to emergency and rescue services to inform them of the person’s absence.

The next precaution one can take before embarking on a water activity is to bring at least one companion along. This provides the opportunity for someone to provide immediate assistance or to have an immediate way to reach for emergency and rescue services.

The next precaution to observe is the weather and lake conditions before and during aquatic activities. Michael Kocher, the Ontonagon County 911 and Emergency Management Director, recommends not only to watch the weather forecast on the television or internet, but to check out Great Lakes Observing System’s (GLOS) online Seagull program. Seagull is a program which displays data collected from buoys out in the Great Lakes and can give the observer information on wave heights, water temperatures and more. Many of the buoys on Lake Superior are handled by Michigan Tech and keep up-to-date on a consistent basis.

Another way Kocher recommends people learn about the water environment is to talk to locals.

“Fishermen are a good bet to ask information on that since they watch the temperature to know what fish species are likely to be around,” Kocher said.

Once others have been informed of one’s whereabouts, a companion joins in the activities and the weather and water conditions have been observed, it is important to remember that the conditions of the water can change rather quickly.

If one is in a kayak or boat, Kocher said that it is important to keep a Marine VHF radio tuned in to Channel 19 for weather reports and updates so one can retreat to shore if the weather takes a hazardous turn.

It is also vital to wear flotation gear such as life jackets at all times, but not everyone does this. Kocher said that the very least people should do is have their floatation and emergency gear within reach and not locked away or behind other equipment.

“It is really important for seniors to keep flotation equipment on, as they will not have the stamina they once had to swim efficiently,” Kocher said.

Heavy clothing is also not recommended since this can inhibit one’s ability to swim efficiently, and during the colder months, it can freeze and completely cease one from moving their arms and legs.

Boaters should also have two motors if venturing into deeper waters. It will be important to have one working if the other malfunctions. One motor is normally the primary one, while the starting and secondary motor is referred to as the kicker.

Once all this is in place, the water recreation can commence as long as the individuals aboard remain diligent. Lake Superior , which Kocher describes as a quasi-ocean, is a giant body of water deserving of respect. The lake has most influence on weather patterns in its surrounding areas, capable of generating waves up to 20 feet in height, strong tides and currents, and temperatures that can quickly lead to fatality if one falls overboard.

“After 10 to 15 minutes, you’ll be a popsicle,” Kocher said.

Kocher said that it is not just the depths people need to be aware of in regard to temperature. He said that, if winds do not change direction for an extended period of time, that the shoreline waters can continuously drop in temperature. Swimmers should allow themselves a recess from the water every so often to avoid hypothermia, which can occur even in the summertime.

While in the water on a boat if the worst-case scenario were to occur with the vessel sinking, the most important thing for one to do is put on or maintain their floatation gear and then mayday over the radio, giving out the location’s coordinates.

Whether one should stay near or get away a vessel taking on water depends on its age, Kocher said. Newer vessels are made to keep somewhat buoyant when going down and allow the boaters something to stay close to and be easier to spot when emergency services conduct a rescue. Older vessels however will sink quickly. These sinking vessels will create suction around them with the water and can pull the boaters deep below the water’s surface. This is why it is vital to get as far away as possible from the sinking boat and keep oneself afloat. If a boater has a flare gun or airhorn, it can help rescuers see them if deployed.

Kayakers should keep themselves as close to a shore that they would feel comfortable swimming back to. They should not tempt the wrath of Superior nor deep inland lakes and paddle out far from shore. The deeper the water is, the more likely the temperature dips, and if one were to fall out into the water with a kayak that has sunk, he or she will be left to waters inevitably bringing hypothermia.

Kayakers should also avoid being near large vessels since it can be difficult for the boaters to see the tiny watercraft. Kayakers should not only be wary of the size of boats, but also their speed. A speeding vessel can create large ripple waves that can easily overturn a kayak by knocking into its side. If a kayaker sees large waves heading his or her way, they should turn the bow of the kayak toward the waves so it can float on top and let waves pass.

Kocher said that the most important thing one can do to stay safe is to always stay updated on new techniques to avoid and handle aquatic dangers.

“Educate yourself to know that what you don’t know can hurt you.”

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