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Water-Safety 101: Lifesaving Tips

Published on Jun. 28, 2021

Every year, thousands of Americans are injured or killed in boating and swimming accidents, including here in northern Michigan. Hopping on a boat or plunging into a nearby lake to bask in the glory of summertime seems merited after the long winter season, but a spur-of-the-moment decision can turn dangerous – and even deadly – quickly.

“Our lakes are beautiful, but they’re very deceptive, and we have a lot of people who go out and enjoy the water but really don't know how to swim,” says Dr. Nancy Smith, Munson Healthcare Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital’s Chief Medical Officer who also serves as an acute care and inpatient physician at the hospital. “There's almost an assumption, that we live around water so you just know how to swim or you’ll learn in the lakes over the summer.”

The truth is unless you’ve taken swimming lessons (and even if you have) taking precaution as you venture into our many lakes this summer and beyond is critical. Protect yourself and your family by familiarizing yourself with the most common water accidents and learning how to prevent them from happening in the first place.

Basic Swimming Tips

  • Learn how to swim. Take swimming lessons from a qualified instructor if you're not a strong, competent swimmer. “I always tell people that swimming is the only sport that can save your life,” Dr. Smith shares.
  • Swim in designated areas. Look for sectioned-off areas with buoys and other safety equipment, which are a far safer bet than venturing off into distant areas.
  • Don't swim alone or allow others to do so. Whether you’ve had professional lessons or not, swimming alone is a big no-no.
  • Avoid Alcohol. Don't swim if you've been drinking alcohol. Aside from the obvious danger, you can also lose your ability to judge your body temperature as well. “People who are drinking may not be able to gauge as well whether they're getting too cold and may find themselves behind the eight ball before they know it,” Dr. Smith says.
  • Beware Rip Currents. Rip currents occur near shorelines with waves. Essentially, they’re fast-moving streams within larger bodies of water that can quickly pull you under and out into much deeper water and lead to drowning. “The key to getting away is to swim parallel to the shore, but it takes a decent swimmer to be able to handle that,” Dr. Smith says. “Plus, you have to be in the mental state to be able to do that.”
  • Stay out of the water during thunderstorms and other severe weather. During lightning storms, seek shelter away from metal objects, open areas, and large, lone trees.
  • Don't exceed your swimming ability. Know your limits and stick to them. Swimming, especially in open bodies of water, is not the best time to challenge yourself on impulse.
  • A Word on Diving. Check the water level before diving into any body of water, and always dive with your arms extended firmly over your head with your hands together. Don't dive into unknown bodies of water, like lakes, rivers, quarries, or irrigation ditches. “It’s important to avoid diving headfirst unless you really know your water because you can end up with a devastating head or neck injury,” Dr. Smith explains. Instead, jump feet first to avoid hitting your head (and breaking your neck or back) on a shallow bottom, hidden rock, or other obstruction.
  • Think Twice About Open-Water Swimming. Open water swimming is becoming increasingly popular, especially as more and more people train for triathlons and other competitive swimming events. But simply put: it’s never a good idea. “I know people who go open-water swimming all the time, and I just can't believe it,” Dr. Smith says. “Between the boats and everything else, if you get into trouble, you just don't stand a chance. People who open-water swim often use bright caps and floatation devices so that people see them, but they don’t guarantee your visibility. Personally, I would never swim alone.”
  • Stay Clear of Chilly Water. According to Dr. Smith, the best temperature for lake swimming is 65 degrees or higher. “Anything less than that can cause you to become internally chilled,” she says. “Wet suits do help to some degree, but in general, be mindful of the water temperature especially in the earlier parts of summer.”
  • If Someone is Drowning… This is the time to lean on safety devices like life preservers rather than trying to rescue the person yourself. Double drownings occur more frequently than people realize for two main reasons. 1) The “rescuer” may quickly find themselves in the same bad conditions as the person drowning and/or 2) A drowning person can inadvertently pull someone down with them in the struggle to stay afloat. “You should always throw a personal floatation device to the person who's having trouble as opposed to trying to grab them,” Dr. Smith stresses.  

Safety Musts for Children and Older Adults

  • Sign kids up for swimming lessons. Enroll children in swimming lessons taught by qualified instructors. “Adequate swimming lessons can decrease your risk of drowning by as much as 88 percent,” Dr. Smith explains. Smith, who worked as a lifeguard in her teenage and college years, teaching children as young as age one to swim, says it's about getting children comfortable in the water as well as teaching them how to save themselves.

“The first thing we did with all the kids was to teach them how to get to the edge of the pool and hold on, so if nothing else they could at least swim to the edge,” she says. “But when you're swimming in lakes with currents, it can get dangerous very quickly and there’s nothing to grab hold of.”

  • Supervise children at ALL times. Swimming lessons won’t make kids “drown-poof.” Children should be well supervised and never allowed to go out into the water or even on piers alone. Even pools can be dangerous, Dr. Smith explains, recalling a pool drowning in Dearborn, MI several years back which occurred when nearby parents were drinking alcohol. “Put the phones away too,” she cautions.
  • Senior Water Safety. Seniors tend to be more precautious when it comes to swimming, though temperature regulation should be a priority, Dr. Smith says (aka avoid long swims and cold waters). Older adults should practice extra vigilance with grandkids and other young family members – especially because they may not be the best person to go out after them. “Don’t get beyond your scope of ability,” Dr. Smith advises.

Boating safety

  • Check weather and water conditions before leaving shore. Don’t venture out before a storm or on days when the water is choppy and temperamental.
  • Don't drink and boat. Alcohol is often a factor in many boating accidents. Choose a designated boat driver who agrees to not drink.
  • Floatation and visual distress devices save lives. Insist that everyone wear a Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device or life jacket while on board. Keep Coast Guard-approved visual distress devices, such as pyrotechnic red flares, orange distress flags, or lights on board.
  • Share your plans. Always tell someone where you'll be boating, when you expect to be back, and what your boat looks like.
  • Don’t go over capacity. Don't carry more passengers than the maximum listed on the boat's capacity plate.

Home-pool safety

Here's how to keep your family safe:

  • Enclose your pool. Build a fence, wall, or other barriers at least 4 feet tall around your pool. Install self-latching gates that open outward.
  • Don't assume your child can swim. Many youngsters forget how to swim when panicked.
  • Keep a close eye on children and non-swimmers who are using inflatable toys, inner tubes, and mattresses. They could slide off them and drown.
  • Closely supervise children when they are diving or jumping in the pool. Head and back injuries are likely to occur during these activities.
  • Clutter-free Decks. Keep the pool's deck area clear of tripping hazards like toys, dishes, and hoses.
  • Have guest rules. Review safety measures and rules with guests before they swim.

Sign up for Swimming Lessons

Benzie County

Benzie Aquatic Center (BAC) is offering FREE swimming lessons at Frankfort public beach for children who have completed K-6th grade. Classes begin on Monday, July 12, 2021 and run on Mondays and Fridays from 10 am - 11am and 11 am - noon through August 6, 2021. Click here for more information and to register.

Charlevoix County

Charlevoix Community Pool is now open for July group swim lessons for all ages. Classes meet Tuesdays and Thursdays, July 6 – July 22, 2021. See the full schedule and register here.

Emmet County

Harbor Springs Community Pool offers swimming lessons throughout the year. They also offer scholarships to assist with the finances of swim lessons. Check out their classes for people of all ages and register here.

Petoskey Swimming specializes in infant self-rescue and affordable private swimming lessons with the goal to ensure that both children and adults are strong swimmers. Year-round classes are available in both individual and group settings. Visit for more information.

Grand Traverse County

Grand Traverse Bay YMCA offers many swim classes for kids of all ages, with a focus on things like water exploration, water stamina, stroke development, and more. Registration is available at both the West Y and Central Y. Click here for more information and to register.

Manistee County

Manistee's Armory Youth Project is offering a free water safety series covering basic skills, helping others stay safe, and what to do in an emergency. If you have a life preserver, snorkel, flippers, etc., please bring them (not required to participate). The remaining date is Tuesday, July 6, 2021 from 12:30 pm to 2:30 pm. Learn more and register here.

Paine Aquatic Center (Manistee Community Pool) offers recreational swim activities including tot swim, kid swim, adult swim, family swim, and more. Call 231-723-1522 for more information.

Otsego County

Otsego County Sportsplex offers swim lessons throughout the summer. Click here for a complete schedule.

Wexford County

Cadillac Area YMCA offers individual swimming lessons from beginners to advanced swimmers. Please call (231)775-3369 for more details.