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Junior Lessard holding the Hobey Baker Award trophy.

Even a strong swimmer runs into trouble when caught in a rip current. UMD's Junior Lessard, above, who won the Hobey Baker Award this spring as college hockey's outstanding player, almost lost his life in Lake Superior last summer.

Rip currents hit home: Minnesota Sea Grant at UMD works to prevent deaths

Minnesota Sea Grant at UMD works to prevent deaths

By Marie Zhuikov

Published on July 10, 2004

Lake Superior swimmers received a deadly lesson last August when a young man, Matthew Rheaume, drowned in a rip current off Park Point in Duluth. "That was really a wake-up call for many people," says Jesse Schomberg, coastal communities educator for Minnesota Sea Grant, housed at the University of Minnesota, Duluth (UMD). "Before then, we didn't think rip currents happened around here."

Nationally, rip currents account for more than 100 deaths a year, more than for tornadoes, hurricanes, or lightning. It's estimated that 80 percent of surf rescues involve rip currents. And don't call them rip tides--that's a misnomer, along with undertow. Rip tides are caused by tidal currents, which don't occur on the Great Lakes. Undertows take people under, whereas rip currents carry people away from shore.

Rip currents result when water rushes offshore in a narrow channel. These currents can extend 1,000 feet, reach 100 feet in width, and travel up to 5 mph. This is slower than you can run, but faster than you or even an Olympic swimmer can swim. They are most prevalent after storms--some lasting a few hours; some (especially on the oceans) permanently.

Recognize a Rip Current:

Murky water from sediments stirred up by the current.

Different waves--larger and choppier.

Foam or objects that move steadily offshore.

Survive a Rip Current:

Don't fight the current.

Swim parallel to the shore to get out of the current.

Rip currents are rarely more than 30 feet wide.

If you can't escape, float calmly until the current dissipates, then swim diagonally back to the shore.

If you need help, call or wave for assistance.

Locally, the impact of Rheaume's death rippled through many agencies working to prevent drownings, and Duluth has since posted beach safety signs along the main road on Park Point. Minnesota Sea Grant joined with the U.S. Lifesaving Association this summer to launch a safety campaign to teach swimmers and the public about rip currents.

Dave Guenther of the National Weather Service says that wind and wave conditions are associated with several Great Lakes rip current deaths. Rapidly increasing wave heights of Great Lakes storms often catch swimmers by surprise.

The day Rheaume died, six other people were rescued on Park Point, including Junior Lessard. Lessard was a hockey-playing student at UMD who, had he not been rescued by another swimmer with a boogie board, may never have gone on to win the coveted Hobey Baker Memorial Award and sign a contract with the Dallas Stars professional hockey team.

"I was swimming my hardest, trying to get back to shore and not going anywhere," says Lessard. "I felt hopeless. It was like slow motion. I was thinking about everything: my family, my hockey...." After struggling for 10 minutes, he was rescued. Lessard grabbed the boogie board and was towed to shore where he collapsed, throwing up blood. He was then taken to a local hospital and treated for four hours before being released. It took him more than three weeks to regain his strength.

The experience changed his outlook on life. Little things don't bother him anymore. "I just go to practice and I'm happy to be there. After the lake incident, you realize what a great opportunity you have," says Lessard.

"Rip currents aren't frequent, and they shouldn't keep folks from enjoying the beach," says Schomberg, "but they do happen, and we need to make sure people can recognize the danger signs and know how to respond so we can avoid another tragedy [like Rheaume's death]."

For more information, see the national rip current Web site; to order brochures about rip currents, go to the Minnesota Sea Grant Web site.

From an original article in Seiche, the Minnesota Sea Grant newsletter.

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