During a 2014 training exercise, Oakland County Sheriff Marine Division members train on a lake on the Oakland County Sheriff Dive Team boat.

During a 2014 training exercise, Oakland County Sheriff Marine Division members train on a lake on the Oakland County Sheriff Dive Team boat.

Photo provided by Sgt. Brent Jex

Drowning prevention is more than learning to swim

‘Even the best swimmers can drown’

By: Sherri Kolade | C&G Newspapers | Published July 9, 2018


OAKLAND COUNTY  — Dave Benjamin drowned, and he tells his story for everyone to hear.

He was surfing on Lake Michigan in Portage, Indiana, on Dec. 26, 2010, when the nose of his surfboard dipped.

“It catapulted me, and I fell probably about 10 feet,” he said. “I landed on my back and got the wind knocked out of me.”

He was in the impact zone of the waves, which washed over him mercilessly.

“I’m on the bottom with my back on the sand,” he said. He was wearing a winter wetsuit with his face exposed to 35-degree water. 

He details his experience on his website, david-benjamin.blogspot.com, where he states that every time he came up for air, he got pushed right back down.  

“The waves were also pushing me toward the jagged rocks of the jetty wall and into a rip current that was pulling me farther out to sea,” he said. “I was panicking, facing shore, vertical in water, mouth at water level, gasping for air, and doing a swimming motioning in the water like I was climbing a ladder. I had come to terms, written myself off, that this was the day and how I was going to die.”

But he didn’t die. 

He stopped fighting the water, calmed himself down and just floated. It took him about 40 minutes, but he floated back to shore. 

From that life-changing experience he co-founded The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project Inc., and he is the current executive director.

The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project is a nonprofit corporation focused on saving lives as a chapter of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, according to www.glsrp.org.

“I had a nonfatal drowning incident,” he said.

The first part of education is learning about what drowning is. Drowning does not necessarily end in death. In 2002, the World Health Organization redefined drowning to be respiratory distress due to immersion or submersion in a liquid.

“If you are choking on water while in water, that is drowning, and it has one of three outcomes: fatal, nonfatal or nonfatal with injury,” Benjamin said. “Most people hear the word ‘drowning’ and they presume it means death, and it doesn’t. If I had a car accident you wouldn’t say, ‘I had a near car accident. … We need to do the same thing with drowning.”

Benjamin said that incorrect definitions of drowning can lead to skewed drowning statistics.

“It is really much worse … because drowning is either underreported or misreported,” he said.

Drowning is the third leading cause of accidental deaths in the United States and is the second leading cause of accidental death in people ages 11-44, according to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office; 90 percent of all boating fatalities are due to drowning.  

Benjamin hopes people sign up for courses through the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project and learn that drowning is easily preventable and is survivable in most cases, according to a press release.

“Unfortunately, though, drowning is a neglected public health issue and one of the leading causes of accidental death in the nation and the world,” Benjamin said in a press release.

He believes the answer is the comprehensive Water Safety School Curriculum and the Public Water Safety Education Program for kindergarteners through 12th-grade students, as well as parental outreach.

“The public program includes updated beach signage, lifeguards, rescue equipment, updated first responder training and public outreach,” he said in the release.

Benjamin added if a school or entity contacts him, he will travel to them — for a fee that varies depending on the distance — and teach them about water safety.

He added that the water safety curriculum does not mean “learn to swim programs.”

“We have to go deeper and simpler than learn to swim. Oftentimes, the reaction to drowning is ‘learn to swim,’ but even the best swimmers can drown,” he said in the release.

Sgt. Brent Jex, of the Oakland County Sheriff Office’s Marine Division, said in a phone interview that as of last week, he’d had four drowning cases on his desk this year.

Three were swimmers who fatally drowned, all young men in their teens to early 20s. One drowned in Oxford Township’s Clear Lake, one in Rochester Hills’ Thelma Spencer Park and one in Pontiac’s Beaudette Park.

The fourth gentleman was in his 40s and had flipped over in his kayak in Waterford’s Pleasant Lake.

“They all swam in areas above their abilities,” Jex said. “They were not strong swimmers. … Alcohol and swimming don’t mix. It leads to dehydration, leg cramps and bad choices. Don’t let your friends influence you to swim beyond your abilities,” he said.

Jex said that the Sheriff’s Office offers free boater safety classes, but not swimming classes. 

He said that people who are not strong swimmers should wear a life jacket. 

“Parents need to be in charge of the pools; boat drivers need to be in charge of the boat and let the passengers have the fun.”

He said that people who are struggling to swim are trying to breathe, so they can’t call for help. 

Benjamin said real drowning is not like what you see on television, where people in dire straits are yelling, waving their hands and making a commotion in the water. In real life, people can drown much more quickly and they can’t call out because their mouths are near the water line. 

Jex said people should pursue swimming classes. 

“Everyone should take a swimming class. The most important thing is the parents need to be involved and get their children into swimming classes at a young age.”

A list of free boater safety classes can be found at www.oakgov.com/sheriff/Pages/safety_tips/course_boating.aspx. To register, call (248) 858-7831. 

For more information on safe swimming and drowning prevention, go to www.glsrp.org.

Water/watersports safety 

• Learn how to swim. 

• Never swim alone —only swim in areas supervised by trained lifeguards. 

• Always supervise young children within a few feet. 

• Do not dive headfirst into any body of water. 

• Avoid the use of alcohol during all water activities. 

• Always keep a safe distance from other boats, at least 100 feet. 

• For watercraft, the rider, the observer and the driver should agree on hand signals — never start out until the rider signals that he or she is ready. 

• Always use caution and common sense. 

Source: Oakland County Sheriff’s Office