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Cold Water Safety in Northern Michigan

An icy Manitou Passage The Manitou Passage off Sleeping Bear Point in early May still had considerable amounts of ice.

Northern Michigan has some of the most beautiful beaches and lakes in the world. Good Morning America declared it the most beautiful place in America and every year thousands of vacationers revel in its splendor.

But that splendor hides some real dangers. Every year brings fresh tragedies as the unprepared, the careless, or the plain unlucky fall victim to the lakes.

May and June are especially dangerous. The weather has warmed and may even be hot, but the waters are still downright icy. The severe winter of 2014 has seen ice lingering on Lake Michigan well through May. The water temperatures this year are likely to remain in the 40s through most of June and remain in the 50s for much of July.

Such cold water can turn a minor mishap into a fight for survival within seconds. What may seem like a nonchalant cruise out onto the big lake, a fun kayak paddle across West Bay, or an adventure out to the Manitous, are in fact serious undertakings that demand careful preparation.

As alarming as that sounds, there are some simple cold water safety guidelines that, if followed, can help to keep things as safe as possible. Following these will help ensure that time up north is as fun and memorable as it's supposed to be.

1. Wear a Personal Floatation Device

You won't succumb to hypothermia in even very cold water for a surprisingly long time. In 40°F water, you may not actually die for an hour or more. You will, however, be likely to lose consciousness before that hour is up. You will lose the ability to keep yourself afloat in an even shorter time, as the cold saps your strength. Wearing a personal floatation device will keep your head above water even when you have lost that capability yourself.

Another reason a flotation device is vital is the phenomenon called "Cold Water Shock". Sudden entry into water even as warm as 70°F can cause a reflexive gasp. In very cold water the shock is more severe and hyperventilation can last for several minutes. During this period, the victim can easily inhale water, causing even strong swimmers to drown quickly.

2. Dress for the Water Temperature

The air may be 85°F, but if the water is 40°F (or even 60°F), your shorts and t-shirt aren't going to keep you warm should you end up swimming. Cold water is 25 times more efficient at cooling than cold air is. The colder the water, the more important the rule of dressing for the water temperature becomes.

Dressing for immersion may mean wearing a wetsuit. In temperatures below 50°F, it means wearing very thick wetsuits, or even drysuits with plenty of insulating layers underneath. Being appropriately dressed for the water temperature will allow you to remain afloat for longer and may even enable you to swim your way out of trouble.

3. Communication

Unless someone knows where you are, your only way out of the water is to self-rescue. Letting someone know where you're going and when you expect to return, and having working communication devices with you are essential components of water safety.

While a mobile phone may do the job for you, it is very easy for them to suffer from poor signal strength or water damage. Any excursion far from shore should be equipped with a two-way VHF radio and EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon). These devices, more robust than a mobile phone, will allow those in distress to summon help and enable that help to quickly locate them.


We're not trying to be alarmists here. The lakes of northern Michigan are a recreational paradise, and they are sure to provide plenty of wonderful experiences as summer approaches. But the lakes, especially when they're as lethally cold as they are this year, need to be treated with a degree of caution.

Adhering to these cold water safety guidelines will help ensure the lakes will be as much fun as they should be this summer.

More Information

More information about cold water safety is available from the following resources: