What to know before your swim

Undertow can make Lake Huron dangerous

By Josh Howald

Warm air and water conditions, combined with large waves, make this a great time of year for swimming in Lake Huron.

But it can also be dangerous, even for experienced swimmers.

In light of another recent drowning at our beaches, there are several things you should know, and remember, before you enter the water.

 Wednesday afternoon, Brenda Lance looked out at the three to four-foot waves breaking at station beach.


Aquatic Supervisor Brenda Lance took some time Wednesday afternoon to discuss general safety when swimming in Lake Huron. (Josh Howald photo)

“I wouldn’t go out much further than waist-deep on a day like today,” said Lance, the Municipality’s Aquatic Supervisor and area chair of the Lifesaving Society. Lance has virtually every swimming certification available, and then some. Swimming out too far is often the cause of swimmers getting into trouble. They have the energy to swim out, but may not have the energy to get back in.

Almost everybody knows what it feels like to take in a gulp of water.

“As soon as you get that gulp, panic sets in automatically,” said Lance. “You can even see it up at the pool with young swimmers, when it happens they stop functioning. This is what sets everything in motion, and you can be pulled out further into the lake.”

She said it is important to remain calm, and head back towards shore immediately, at an angle to the waves.

You want to edge, or angle, your way into the beach, because of riptide currents, more commonly known in these parts as undertow.

“You might be able to touch in one spot, take another step (and not be able to). If you step in a dry foot hold you could be pulled out,” she said.

Waves can also knock people off their feet and sweep them away. The lighter the person, the quicker it can happen.

Basically, undertow is the force of a wave going back out to the Lake after hitting shore, or something else – the pier for example.

Waves hitting the pier and the shoreline create an incredibly powerful southwest current.

“From what I understand, it’s almost like an underground river out there,” said Bill McKeag, a former OPP officer and the Kincardine’s acting harbourmaster.

McKeag and an Elmira man located the body of Lake Huron’s latest drowning victim recently at Station Beach. He said no more than five or six minutes had passed from the time he heard help was needed to the time he rounded the corner of the south pier.

“We came around the corner and saw the man probably 200-feet south and 350-feet west of the pier. From what I understand they had been swimming on the south side of the (ship) wreck and drifted towards the pier before getting into trouble.”

McKeag thought his number was up as he struggled that day.

“I was underwater more than I was above it,” he said.

Lance said that when you fear for your life, it is time to call it quits on the rescue, which is obviously easier said than done.

If someone you are swimming with gets into trouble, the best decision is to grab them by the arms and tow them to shore as quickly as possible swimming on your back.

If you spot trouble from shore, don’t enter the water unless you are an experienced swimmer. And even if you are, don’t go unless you take something that floats along with you.

“You need a ring, a floatie, anything,” she said. “In the worst case, you will still have something to hang onto.”

Six life rings can be found at Station Beach, one of which was used to pull McKeag, the second rescuer and the drowning victim to shore. A boater tied 100-feet of rope to the ring, anchored it to shore and waded out to pull them in.

Meanwhile, another ring was used by a Kincardine teen to pull another swimmer to shore.

 “If nothing is available, I wouldn’t go in the water at all,” said Lance.

Something both Lance and McKeag both pointed out that very few people know there is an emergency telephone at Station Beach. It is yellow, and located on the north side of the fish cleaning station. A first aid kid can also be found at the telephone.

Swimming lessons at the Davidson Centre put a major emphasis on beach safety, said Lance. Rescues are a mandatory part of any advanced level children’s class. She recommends that if you don’t already know CPR, it is time to learn.

“It’s become easier to teach, and easier to learn,” she said.

This summer Lance placed old Aqua-Fit belts at the end of both piers to aid that aren’t strong swimmers after jumping off the pier. However, they have a habit of disappearing, as did the six life rings on the beach.

“I’m trying to come up with something cost-efficient for next summer,” said Lance. “I thought the belts would be ugly enough, but I guess not.”

“People maybe don’t always appreciate how important it is to have the life rings available down here (at the harbor),” said McKeag.

For information on swimming lessons or water and beach safety, contact the Recreation office at 396-3491.

What to Know Before You Swim

My brother-in-law, Michael Hancock lost his life recently in a heroic attempt to save his daughter from drowning in Lake Huron. Thanks to the assistance of bystanders Brittany was saved. We have been devastated by the loss of our dear Michael.
Our family was very pleased to see your recent article "What to Know Before You Swim", by Josh Howald. It is so crucial for our citizens and visitors to understand the strength of the lake, the safety precautions, and the emergency assistances available.
We hope that this article will be re-printed again in the spring, and again during the summer.
We hope this will help to educate people and possibly save lives, and that Michael's tragic drowning will not have been in vain.
Thank you Eric for your sympathies and your articles.
Janet Hancock and family.


Thank you , realy nice tips , i printed them.


Very informative and interesting. This will help a lot of people to be aware of things that they must know before swimming. Swimming is really a good activity and the best exercise that we can do, but we should also know these things to prevent any accidents that may happen. It's for our own sake. Thanks for sharing this.More power!

I think it is important that

I think it is important that you have taken lssons before engaging into a water sports. It can be a good foundation for your swimming skill.s