Water Warnings

 

(This 1005th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 27, 2010.)

 

It has been several years since I have told this story, and it bears repeating at this season.

 

In June 1963 when I was recovering from major surgery, I spent a week on Cape Cod. Our visit was during the off-season so there was not the crowding found there at mid-summer.

 

One hot, sunny afternoon I drove east from where we were staying in Harwichport to a beach near Monomoy to go swimming. I planned to spend just a few minutes in the cold water.

 

I had hardly gotten in when I found myself being carried by a strong current out away from the beach. Ten yards from shore turned into twenty and then thirty in a matter of seconds. I was headed for open water - and Spain.

 

As those few seconds passed, I went directly from enjoying a pleasant dip to abject fear. I have never been a strong swimmer and I was only two weeks from a hospital bed, so I had no chance of fighting against this rip tide. And I didn't have the stamina to withstand a long period in cold water. I was in deep trouble.

 

All I could think was, perhaps this is a narrow current and I can swim parallel to the beach to get away from it. That was the right thought because it took only a few strokes to take me out of that stream into more normal water.

 

Even then I found myself a good sixty or seventy yards offshore. But I could paddle slowly back toward the beach and finally let the rollers cast me up on the sand, completely exhausted. I was quite literally in tears.

 

When I finally recovered some presence of mind, I walked a hundred yards down the beach to the lifeguard station. There was not yet anyone on duty but I came upon a young man with a sweatshirt identifying him as a lifeguard. When I told him my story, his first response was that I was most fortunate, because a number of swimmers had drowned in episodes similar to mine, two the previous year at that beach. He was impressed by my decision to swim sidewise out of the current, but he asked me if I wasn't simply obeying the instructions on the sign.

 

"What sign?" I asked. He pointed back down the beach to a sign near the dunes at one of the boardwalk entrances to the area.

 

I walked back and read the warning. Indeed it not only said to watch out for rip tides but also told bathers to swim perpendicular to the current to escape their effect. Unfortunately for me and surely other swimmers as well, it was along a walk different from the one I took to the beach.

 

I repeat that story because such currents are not restricted to the ocean. There are a number of places in the Great Lakes where similar currents can be exaggerated by particular wind conditions to cause problems like the one I faced.

 

What made me think of it was the latest issue of the excellent on-line journal, Upwellings, which is devoted to matters related to the Great Lakes. The current issue has a number of warnings about lake hazards.

 

Rip tides are not the only summer concern at the shore. Storms are another. I recall birding after a brief thunderstorm at Niagara-on-the-Lake in nearby Ontario. Drifting in among the scoters and scaup came a swamped yacht empty of passengers. We notified the police but I never did learn whether the boaters got ashore safely.

 

Storms come up quickly here and they often bring surf, sudden drops in temperature and, most threatening, lightning.

 

Remember the old rule: lightning looks for the high point to strike. Out on the level lake your boat or even you are that high point. Your best bet: get ashore and get in your car. And remember: lightning strikes as far as fifty miles from the nearest threatening cloud.

 

Finally, fishermen and pier walkers should be alert to seiches, Lake Erie acting like a big pan of water sloshing back and forth. The right wind conditions can raise water level eight or ten feet in a few moments.