Open-Water Drowning Risk for Kids is Rising

While pool drownings are dropping, accidents in natural bodies of water are not – and boys ages 15-19 are at highest risk. Here's how to keep all kids safe from open-water drowning this summer.

Forty-five minutes after kayakers rescued Jamie Racklyeft from the rip current that almost killed him in 2012, a 16-year-old lost his life in that same current in Lake Michigan. In 2018, during Memorial Day weekend, another 16-year-old boy drowned in Oxford’s Clear Lake. And, unfortunately, thousands of other children will lose their lives the same way.

In fact, 19 kids fatally drown each week. Of those drownings, 70 percent happen between May and August. And, according a 2018 report, these drownings are more likely to take place in open water than in a pool.

That report, released by Safe Kids Worldwide, found open-water drowning is on the rise for youth ages 0-19 while pool drownings have decreased. The numbers were highest among teens ages 15-19, with 80 percent of those victims being male.

Here in the Great Lakes State, it’s especially important for parents to educate kids on water safety – particularly in open water.

After his own near-death experience, Racklyeft formed the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium.

As executive director of this Ann Arbor-based nonprofit, Racklyeft works with hundreds of lifeguards, water safety advocates, scientists and survivors to educate people about water safety and best practices.

Open-water risks

It’s often said you’re never more than six miles from a body of water in Michigan – whether a river, one of 11,000-plus inland lakes or our five Great Lakes. And lakes, the report notes, are the most common location for open-water drowning. So, while all those lakes offer hours of summer fun swimming, boating and more, they also pose a risk for kids of all ages.

And weather changes can increase that risk.

“The wind affects the water and forms waves, and the waves can form dangerous currents,” Racklyeft says – like the one that nearly took his life. When this happens, he says, you get a “washing machine effect” next to piers – notorious spots “where the teenage boys are jumping off to impress teenage girls,” he adds.

Chilly waters play a role, too, according to Safe Kids Worldwide. “Water temperature has a strong impact on how a person reacts when entering the water. It can also affect swimming ability. Open-water sources are usually colder than swimming pool water. Falling into cold water can cause cold shock, which in turn can lead to panic and drowning,” the report notes.

Staying safe this summer

Before hitting the beach, parents should check the National Weather Service for water conditions. It shows current warnings for every single beach, Racklyeft says. “If there’s a red-flag warning, don’t let them go.”

Even if the conditions look OK, remember that there doesn’t have to be waves and currents to cause drowning. “Calm water can take little kids,” he says.

That said, don’t swim alone. It’s always best to swim with a buddy.

Also, always wear a personal floatation device. “Don’t just bring a life jacket; wear it,” he says. “Life jackets save lives. Life jackets are cool.”

Life jackets come in different colors and price points, too. Racklyeft recommends the MTI brand, available at Dick’s Sporting Goods. It’s brightly colored, U.S. Coast Guard-approved kids options feature secure straps or full-zip closures – even “grab loops” on some types – and cost about $40-$60.

Thanks to television and movies, there’s a common misconception about what drowning actually looks like, he adds. “In real life, if you’re getting close to drowning, you can’t yell,” he says. “In reality, drowning is swift and silent.”

Knowing he was in trouble back in 2012, Racklyeft yelled early on – “and, sure enough, even though I thought, ‘No one can see me, no one can hear me,'” his shouting paid off. He later found out that the people that rescued him did, in fact, hear his cries.

If your child does find himself in this situation, Racklyeft says he should yell for help if he’s able.

After that, he recommends the following method: “flip, float and follow.” If you’re having trouble swimming or you’re worried, flip onto your back to control your panic, he says, and inflate your lungs. “If you’re in a rip current, you want to float out of it and follow the path of least resistance back to shore.” Do not fight the current, he says. “It’s the ‘stop, drop and roll’ of water safety.”

This post was originally published in 2018 and is updated regularly.


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