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Great danger on Great Lakes

Stuff happens on big water. Boaters fall overboard. People do foolish things. Boats capsize in rough seas. The idea is living to tell about it rather than becoming a statistic, to make the right judgment call rather than panic.

"You have just seconds sometimes," said local retired 27-year Coast Guard veteran Tom Rau.

Rau, 64, is the author of a book titled "Boat Smart Chronicles - Lake Michigan Devours Its Wounded."

Rau, who worked in search and rescue at six stations on Lake Michigan, is a human scary movie. For every good time boaters can recall on the Great Lake in Chicago's back yard, he can relate a frightening tale of disaster or a close call.

"It's a tough body of water when she gets into a restive mood," Rau said.

Rau stresses in his lectures and writing that sailors and powerboaters never should take circumstances for granted_many accidents occur on nice days. Avoid making "naive assumptions," he said. An investigator of dozens of fatalities, Rau said people often die in the water from carelessness. They may jump off boats and, while wearing a life jacket, hit the water awkwardly and never surface. A common misjudgment is assuming that it is easy to get back on a boat or catch up to one after jumping into the water.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," Rau said. "When you put your guard down around water, you should be most on guard. The big thing for sailors is to stay on the boat."

That may sound elementary, but shifting wind and water conditions can heave a sailor overboard. Being tethered to the boat with a harness is a useful idea, he said. Rau cited a case of an expert sailor on Puget Sound who fell overboard, but his crew couldn't turn the sailboat around fast enough, so he drowned. In 2005, a 57-year-old Milwaukee man launched a backyard boat he spent years building and carried three passengers onto Lake Michigan. The weather changed, waves grew to 10 feet and a helicopter was needed for a rescue.

"The water's full of surprises," Rau said.

That's why it is important to try out safety gear before being forced to rely on it.

During a Coast Guard exercise, Rau was dragged through the water on a life harness. But he was spinning and realized if he opened his mouth, "it would have been like a garden nozzle down my throat. I thought, `I'm not a Navy Seal. This is too much.' "

Another time water got into a wet suit and tumbled him upside down.

"It humbles the hell out of you," Rau said of a body of water such as Lake Michigan. "You never stop learning."

Sailing at night is no picnic, Rau said, and it is imperative to carry a powerful night light for vision and to be seen from a distance by other vessels.

"Please have some form of night illumination," Rau said. "A strobe light is a wonderful piece of equipment."

Other key pieces of equipment include flares, a whistle and reflective tape on life jackets or wet suits. A few years ago, Rau said a fisherman fell overboard at night near Ludington, Mich. After a Mayday was issued, the Coast Guard rescued him by spotting the wet suit's reflective tape.

One eager listener at a recent presentation in Chicago by Rau was Gene Neyhart of Milwaukee. In May of 1987, he put his dinghy into 10 feet of Lake Michigan water near the Wisconsin South Shore Yacht Club just kind of "mutzing around." Neyhart said he became "the No. 1 person rescued" on the lake by the Coast Guard that year when his boat capsized.

"It was 40-degree water and I was in for 20 minutes," Neyhart said. "I was yelling. Two guys lifted me out. The whole lower part of my body was non-functional. My temperature was 92 degrees two hours after they fished me out."

Rau eyed Neyhart and said, "You are a fortunate man."

Oh, yeah, Neyhart said he teaches sailing and "I'm a little embarrassed by this." The incident shows how something can happen to anyone.

Rau offered a list of suggestions to follow if a person falls overboard. 1) Sound a "man overboard" alert. 2) Assign a spotter to watch the person in the water. 3) Throw out a life ring that has a strobe light and is not attached to the boat. 4) If necessary, call the Coast Guard and provide latitude and longitude.

"Little things out there mean a lot," Rau said.