ST. JOSEPH – The forecast for the next couple of days means local beaches will likely be packed this Labor Day weekend. But forecasters say Sunday and Monday will likely prompt rip current warnings.
So far this year, 62 people have drowned in the Great Lakes. The Coast Guard said about 32 of them happened on Lake Michigan. A group of surfers is doing its best to make sure those numbers don’t go up.
It’s not uncommon to see people swimming in Lake Michigan during rip current warnings, when red flags are up and lifeguards say the water is not safe. But there’s a good chance you’ll also see Ryan Gerard catching a few waves on his surf board in those unsafe conditions.
“I’m sure it is a bit of a mixed signal but I would hope people understand [Great Lakes surfers] are experienced,” he said. “If a surfer is new to the sport or they don't know what they're doing, they shouldn't be out there.”
Gerard owns the Third Coast Surf Shop in St. Joseph. He’s also part of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project – a group of surfers from the Midwest trained to survive rip currents, recognize the signs of drowning and use their surf boards to rescue distressed swimmers.
“Surfers on the Great Lakes have been saving people’s lives since the 1960s,” he said.
So far in 2011, the group says its members have saved more than 60 lives on the Great Lakes. In fact, a surfer from Illinois who went through one of the group’s classes in New Buffalo last weekend actually saved a drowning boy on a New Buffalo beach a short time after that class ended.
Even with those life-saving statistics, the Coast Guard does not support the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.
“No matter how strong a swimmer you are, we cannot encourage swimmers to go out there when there’s a red flag,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer Steven Ruh.
But diehard surfers like Gerard say they would never stand by and watch someone drown, knowing their skills and training could save a life.
“I couldn’t just sit on the beach and watch someone struggle,” he said.
The Great Lakes Surf Rescue project has one more class scheduled for early September, possibly in the Chicago area. If you're interested in training for it you can find more information on the group's Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Great-Lakes-Surf-Rescue-Project/120501018657.