The Water Does Not Discriminate

The dramatic rescues and tragic drownings of August 5 clearly illustrated that Lake Michigan is not a force with which we can trifle.  When Mother Nature whips up her fury, it is important to respect the power of the water.

That power is obvious when we have strong winds and crashing waves.  It is less obvious – but equally dangerous – when things look calm on the surface.   That’s why it is so important to acknowledge the danger and teach precautions around pier safety…especially for teens.

We talk about the “Grand Haven South Pier” as a beloved and iconic feature of our waterfront.  It is all those things.  But it can also be highly dangerous and deeply deceiving.

Let’s start with the name.  Technically, we do not have a pier in Grand Haven.  We have a breakwater.  What’s the difference?  A pier is supported on pilings and is open underneath.  Water can move under it.  A breakwater, such as ours, is solid concrete.  The water crashes against that immovable object and rebounds.  It has nowhere else to go.

A breakwater is very dangerous because it causes abrupt changes in the water’s direction, which can create powerful currents.  A swimmer who jumps into that water will feel enormous tugging and pulling as the water eddies around the breakwater.  The current can be so strong that swimmers cannot reach shore.

The second major danger of our Grand Haven breakwater are the hidden rocks.  There are gigantic, sharp-edged boulders weighing hundreds of pounds lurking below the surface.  They’re invisible in the dark swirling water.  The only way a swimmer knows they are there is when it’s too late.

“We get called out to at least a dozen emergencies at the breakwater every year,” says Tom Stanley, Director of NOCHS EMS in Grand Haven.  “In virtually every case, we have a teenager who has jumped and gotten into trouble.”  Many kids get stuck in the current and can’t get to shore.  Others incur serious injuries from the rocks.   Tom says, “We had one teen who jumped and struck his head on the rocks.  He ended up with a confirmed spinal fracture.”

NOCHS and the City are concerned about breakwater safety.  New signage is being posted to warn people about the dangers, especially of jumping.  “I know it looks like fun,” Tom admits.  “But we have to have the difficult conversations with our kids about not jumping off the breakwater.  It’s no different than other conversations, like not texting while driving.  It looks harmless.  It looks like fun.  But the water does not discriminate.   It can be life altering or deadly to jump off that breakwater. And it only takes one jump.”

As we learned on August 5, the water can claim lives in a moment.  “Even though we are local, it can take several minutes to get on site for a breakwater or rip current emergency,” Tom notes.  “This community is a very popular tourist destination with a limited number of roadways that are quite narrow. That, in addition to navigating one of the largest and most densely populated beaches in the Great Lakes can add precious minutes to response times for EMS, first responders and public safety officers. That’s why we ask members of the year-round and visiting community to partner with us by heeding the warnings, and using their best judgement at all times.“

So please…talk to your kids.  Help them understand the dangers and take a stand about breakwater safety.  We all want to see those kids enjoying our beautiful waterfront for decades to come.


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