Jamie Racklyeft, the communications director of the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research at the University of Michigan, knows second chances are rare. After nearly drowning off the shore of Van’s Beach in Leland, Michigan in 2012, Racklyeft is leading the effort to end drownings in the Great Lakes.
In 2016, Racklyeft founded the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium, a non-profit partnered with more than 350 organizations to create guidelines for water safety.
“There are a lot of people working on preventing drowning in the Great Lakes, but they weren’t working together,” Racklyeft said. “That’s when I got involved as a communicator. The more we can get people working together and collaborating, the more we can find what’s working and what isn’t.”
A study by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, one of GLWSC’s partners, reported there were 669 drownings in the Great Lakes from 2010 to 2018. According to Racklyeft, 85 percent of drowning victims are male with a particular emphasis between ages 18 and 24. A study concluded males tend to overestimate their abilities in the water and are more susceptible to peer pressure.
LSA junior Connor Kippe explained pier diving was a common pastime for young adults in his hometown of Grand Haven, Michigan.
“Growing up, guys tend to be a little more flippant about risk and showing off,” Kippe said. “It was a thing people did. Some people would just watch, they wouldn’t always jump. Others would do tricks off the side of the pier.”
Water safety was part of Kippe’s middle school health curriculum, setting his school apart from many others in Michigan. But despite being educated on the subject, Kippe said people in his community and similar areas continue to participate in risky behavior.
Racklyeft recognized the difficulty of communicating the importance of water safety.
“If they’ve gone to the lake before and they’ve been fine, they’ll think they’ll be fine again,” Racklyeft said. “There’s so many ways things can go wrong. How can we get that across? It’s tough. It’s not just about awareness. We can let them know, but does that mean it’ll change behavior? Not always.”
According to GLWSC, there are many factors that can contribute to a drowning. Rip currents, powerful fluxes of water that jets away from shore and out into open water, are one of the main causes of drownings in the Great Lakes. “Flip, float and follow” is a universal technique used for escaping these currents. Rhett Register of the Michigan Sea Grant, another GLWSC partner, said someone caught in a rip current should never try to fight it.
“Even Michael Phelps can’t swim against a rip current, they’re so powerful,” Register said. “Flip over on your back, float for a second and follow the best path out of the current. Don’t fight the current.”
Swimmers can also prevent drowning by being prepared. According to Racklyeft, out of the 669 people who have drowned in the Great Lakes since 2010, only 5 of them were wearing life jackets. He also advises checking the National Weather Service before going to the beach and staying out of the water when waves are more than two to three feet high.
Racklyeft’s work aims to emphasize the importance of being prepared as Racklyeft remembers his own experience with the dangers of rip currents. He remembers a clear sky and a bright Michigan sun. Though the Lake Michigan waves were high, they didn’t seem any more dangerous than waves he’d encountered before; however, before he knew it, Racklyeft was pulled out into the lake by a rip current with waves four to five feet high crashing down on him every few seconds.
“I just got exhausted,” Racklyeft said. “I was sure I was going to drown.”
Two kayakers noticed Racklyeft and pulled him out of the water at the last second. Though he was saved, he learned a 16-year-old boy had drowned in the same rip current later that day.
“I figured I need to do something about this,” Racklyeft said. “I need to give back, I need to figure out what all this means and what I could and should do about being the lucky one. There’s survivor guilt, of course, and there’s opportunity to turn something negative into something positive.”
That 16-year-old boy was LSA junior Eva Grobbel’s boyfriend.
“It’s affected my life in every single way, just how I feel about water, how I think about water, how I feel about at the beach or other people that I see swimming,” Grobbel said. “I think it should be something taught at school. If you’re not, there’s really not a way to learn unless you come across somebody telling you about it or having a parent that has experience with it.”
Six years after the incident, Grobbel read about Racklyeft in her local newspaper. Seeing that he worked at the University of Michigan, she reached out to tell him her story.
“I’m just very glad Jamie is taking this upon himself to do, because I think it will help many people,” Grobbel said. “I’m sure so many people have already been educated that never knew anything about it before.”
Racklyeft has visited the beach where he nearly drowned several times since his rescue. In July, he made Van’s Beach the spot for his wedding.