Chicago fire officials are asking residents to take extra precautions when using area waterways after a recent string of high-profile incidents that required rescue operations.
In the most recent incident Saturday, a 31-year-old man died after he and a friend jumped into the waters of Lake Michigan from a boat approximately a half-mile from the shoreline. The duo became separated from the boat because of high waves, and they had to be rescued from the water by CFD divers.
“It started out nice, calm, and very hot, but everybody knows conditions can change in a heartbeat,” Jason Lach, Deputy District Chief in Charge of Marine Operations for the Chicago Fire Department, said at a Sunday press conference. “Storms came in from the north, made the lake extremely choppy and difficult to navigate.”
The drowning was one of at least seven incidents that required water rescue team responses on Saturday, and is one of several high-profile incidents to occur on the lake in recent weeks.
On July 11, a woman was killed and two other people were injured after a boat the trio was riding on crashed into a jetty just south of Fullerton Avenue, ejecting a 28-year-old woman from the watercraft. She was killed, and two other people were injured.
In another incident on July 17, five people were hurt when their boat struck a breakwall on Lake Michigan near Randolph Street. Two people were ejected from the boat and landed on the breakwall, and they were taken to area hospitals in serious-to-critical condition.
Lach says that a contributing factor to the incidents has been higher-than-normal lake levels, which are obscuring jetties and breakwalls that are generally visible for boaters.
“The water level is up so much right now (it’s obscuring them),” he said. “Usually they’re three to five feet out of the water, and right now they’re only a foot or so out of the water. It can be a navigational and swimming hazard.”
According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, at least 39 people have drowned in the Great Lakes this year, with 19 of those deaths occurring on Lake Michigan. There were 117 total drownings last year, the highest number recorded in the last decade.
Lach and the Chicago Fire Department offered several tips to boaters and swimmers who want to venture out onto area waterways this summer:
Be Aware of Your Surroundings
According to Lach, most drownings occur when someone is in close proximity to the victim.
“Be aware of your surroundings,” he said. “If you see something, say something. The city has their lifeguards on duty during daylight hours.”
Be Prepared for Changing Conditions
“Boaters, lake conditions can change,” Lach said. “Lake Michigan is a small ocean. Wave conditions can pick up very fast, and can make conditions difficult for even a very experienced boater or swimmer.”
Use Safety Devices, and Have Them Available at All Times
“Make sure you have personal flotation devices and make sure you know how to navigate them,” Lach said.
Avoid Drinking and Boating
“When you’re out on the water, it’s just like driving a car,” Lach said. “Drinking and driving is not a good thing on the road or the water. You’re having a good time and that’s great, but you have to be aware of your surroundings.”
Use Your Experience Level to Dictate Your Boat Trip
Lach and the Chicago Fire Department recommend that less-experienced boaters primarily travel during daylight hours, and that they have a person with boating experience accompany them out on the lake. That will help boaters gain valuable insight into how the lake behaves, and how to operate a boat when obstacles like jetties and breakwalls are present.