Staying Safe on Big Water

Door County may not be on an ocean, but don’t be mistaken - Lake Michigan is big water.

As incredible as these waters can be for recreation, they can also change from calm to threatening at a moment’s notice. That’s why you should always be prepared when embarking on an adventure on the lake.

Here are some safety tips that everyone taking part in water recreation should have in mind every time they push off from shore.

  1. Check the weather. It may look sunny and calm, but wind can pick up and storms roll in with little visible warning. Check what’s in the forecast for the next several hours, specifically wind condition and waves, but also water temperature. The waters of Lake Michigan, especially off the peninsula’s eastern shore, can be chilly even in mid-summer.
  2. Make a plan. Anytime you head out on the water, let someone know you are heading out, and when you expect to be back on shore, and let them know you’ll contact them when you’re there. Tim Pfleiger of Door County Adventure Center said your float plan should Include how many people are in the party, color of vessels and color of personal flotation devices. He also suggests putting a copy of the float plan in the windshield of your vehicle.
  3. Go with someone. This isn’t always possible, but if you have the option, go out with a friend.
  4. Wear your safety vest. Don’t ditch it on shore, don’t just bring it with you. You won’t have a chance to put it on if disaster strikes. Wear a properly fitted Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device. Pack your personal gear, such as your cell phone, in a waterproof bag and tie it to your boat so you don’t lose it if you capsize.
  5. Bring a signaling device such as a whistle, flashlight or cell phone.
  6. Know your craft. Not all kayaks are meant for big water or bad weather. Learn the limitations of your kayak, canoe, or boat. Pfleiger provides an example: “If you’re paddling a traditional kayak that requires a spray deck, then you should have a spray deck on it so the water doesn’t come into your cockpit and cause instability and possible capsizing.”
  7. Stay near shore. Lake Michigan is BIG water. Keep the shore in sight at all times. Even a little wind can create wave action that makes it difficult to get back to shore, and bad weather can quickly make it difficult to navigate and find your bearings on the water.

Here are some additional tips from the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary on what to do in an emergency.

  • If you can’t get to shore or back in your kayak, do not swim because you will lose body heat even faster. Floating in your PFD is your best bet.
  • In 70-degree water, you can survive for about 18 hours while floating with a PFD, or for about 13 hours treading water.
  • In 55-degree water, the survival window is 3.5 hours floating in a PFD, three hours treading water, and two hours swimming.
  • In 35-degree water, the survival window is less than two hours floating in a PFD, one hour and 25 minutes treading water, and about 45 minutes swimming.
  • If you are wearing a PFD, bring your knees to your chest to try to contain body heat. If you are with others, huddle together to save heat. If you are wearing a Type 3 life vest, do not draw up your knees. Instead, keep your legs together and arms at your side while leaning back to keep your face out of the water.