Surfers enjoy extreme sport, help save lives By Jill McCaughan
here is a stereotype that persists about surfers. It’s present in nearly every film that features one: laid-back, easygoing, and interested in only one thing — catching a ride on the next big wave. There’s also a stereotype about Great Lakes surfing: That it’s a pretty poor substitute for “the real thing.” The fact is, the Great Lakes are known to serve up some very good rides to the surfers who make their homes here. “St. Joe’s got some excellent surfing, in part because of the pier,” said Joseph Hayman, a resident of Stevensville who started surfing at the age of 15. The problem is, most of the days that are great for surfing are also days that swimmers should stay out of the water. Those bigger waves bring with them dangerous rip currents. And, the pier that helps to make St. Joseph such a great place to surf also adds danger in the form of structural currents. “If there are surfers out there, you should not be in the water. People need to know that those are dangerous conditions for swimmers,” Hayman said. This combination — big waves and dangerous, hidden currents — has led many surfers like Hayman into life-saving roles that break all of the stereotypes that films so often play upon. “Surfers are the unofficial
Submitted photo/BRIAN TANIS
TOP: Surfers take advantage of Lake Michigan’s waves. ABOVE: The scene at the Grand Haven, Mich., pier after a surfer assisted in rescuing several drowning swimmers in 2007.
lifeguards of the Great Lakes,” said Bob Pratt, director of education and co-founder of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. “They make hundreds of rescues on the Great Lakes, many that you never hear about.” “‘Unofficial’ is a good word,” Hayman said. “We don’t assume the responsibility ourselves, but we take it because we’re there.”
According to statistics compiled by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue project, at least 328 people drowned in the Great Lakes between 2010 and 2013. Last year alone, 66 people drowned, with 23 of those deaths occurring in Lake Michigan. In 2012, Lake Michigan claimed 50 victims — more than any of the other Great Lakes for either of those two years. Why is it that Lake Michigan
claims so many lives? According to Pratt, there are several reasons. The first has to do with a combination of the type of waves found on Lake Michigan and the way that swimmers tend to perceive them. “Geographically speaking, all of our waves are wind-generated. The fetch — the distance that the wind travels over, and that a wave can therefore travel — on Lake Michigan
is only 300 miles, whereas in the ocean, a wave can travel thousands of miles,” Pratt explained. “Because of that, the waves are much closer together, from crest to crest, on Lake Michigan.” According to Hayman, the distance between wave crests, or the “period,” is often 25 to 30 seconds between waves in Hawaii. Here, the period is often only 3 seconds.