Community comes together to teach swimmer safety

Scott Viau

With a summer that has brought tragedy to at least four families from unexpected drownings, learning water safety is one of the most important things a person can do.

Fitness and informal recreation manager Katie Theut oversees the “Learn to Swim” program and the water safety instructor certification programs.

Theut said leaning how to swim is a lifelong skill and that it’s no different than riding a bike. She included that it’s also unfortunate that more people don’t know how to swim.

The water at Picnic Rocks may look like an inviting place to take a dip, but various underwater hazards such as riptides can make Lake Superior an incredibly dangerous place to swim. // Ashley Wiggins/NW

“There’s a lot of reasons for that, since not everybody has access to a body of water,” Theut said. “You look into bigger cities and not a lot of individuals have access to aquatic facilities to learn how to swim.”

Theut said when a person finds themselves struggling in the water they will go from a distressed swimmer to an active drowning victim.

“A lot of people say just float, but if you don’t know how to float, then you’re not going to be able to just float and relax,” Theut said.

Theut has found herself in a few life-or-death situations when rescuing someone from the water, but said it’s something people need to learn how to do.

“I did a full-fledged rescue. He was a younger kid, outside on a hot day. He got into the water, which was cold, and got a muscle cramp. His whole body cramped up,” Theut said. “He just sank like a rock.”

One of the dangers while swimming at the beach are riptides, which are currents that channel water away from the shore. Riptides can occur at both big and small lakes, as well as the ocean.

“(When caught in a rip tide) what you’re going to do is not swim back toward shore,” Theut said. “You want to swim out, and then swim parallel to the shore line.”

Assistant City Manager Karl Zueger said that the city has implemented a task force that will be studying the city’s 10 miles of beach.

“The task force will come up with a laundry list of things they feel is imperative to create that model that other communities can use,” Zueger said.

A flag system has also recently been put in that informs swimmers of the condition of the through different colored flags.

“It has green, yellow, red and then double red. When conditions are safe we have green flags up,” Zueger said. “When you see waves or conditions start to be threatening you’ll see yellow flags, which can escalate to red and double red means no swimming (at all).”

The city has lifeguards posted at South Beach and McCarty’s Cove from the first Friday in June to Labor Day weekend. Having more lifeguards posted may be a recommendation by the task force, Zueger said.

According to Marquette Police Chief Michael Angeli, they’re looking into the legality of limiting swimming areas and limiting access to the dangerous waters.

In the case of Billups, an official cause of death has not yet been determined.

“Without any obvious external problems like a broken arm, we do toxicology and check for different things that might be in the blood stream or in their system,” Angeli said. “Barring those things we generally either attribute it to weather conditions or the limited swimming of the people involved.”

Cindy Paavola, Director of Communications and Marketing, said that during orientation students are spoken to about the power of Lake Superior. Students are also told not to go out on the break wall during high winds.

Paavola also said that she doesn’t think the university will make any new policies regarding swimmer safety before the city does.