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Swimmer safety number one focus

With the most deadly swimming season in Marquette history now in the books, city officials resolve that it never will happen again

September 24, 2010
By CHRISTOPHER DIEM Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE - One of the positive developments to come out of this summer's rash of tragic drownings in Marquette is an increased community discussion on waterfront safety.

Many people have shared their concerns and ideas with the Marquette City Commission, through e-mails, phone calls or at public meetings.

Some people suggested having the Marquette City Fire Department talk to school children about water and swimming safety similar to their annual fire safety program. Others suggested placing informational pamphlets about Marquette's beaches in areas often frequented by tourists.

Article Photos

Scenes from Marquette’s Picnic Rocks and McCarty’s Cove both popular lakefront areas, are from last summer. A number of people drown off city beaches last summer, prompting officials to start planning now to have improved safety controls in place in time for the 2011 swimming season. (Journal file photos from Danielle Pemble)

Other people had ideas specific to Picnic Rocks, where over a dozen people have drowned since the 1960s. Ideas included destroying the rocks, building a breakwater from the shore to the rocks to disrupt a strong water current and establishing an audible warning system at the beach to warn people of strong currents.

Marquette resident Don Potvin suggested anchoring a series of floating ropes from the rocks to the shore.

"If they get partway and can't make it all they must do is swim to the closest line and hang on and wait for help or go hand over hand until they get into wading water," he said.

Fact Box

"My goal and the goal now of city staff, is to have the most advanced water safety plan on the Great Lakes, period. I want Marquette to be the model community and we can do it."

- John Kivela, mayor

City of Marquette

The area near Picnic Rocks is affected by a longshore current, a type of rip current. Longshore currents, which move parallel to the shore, can be dangerous for swimmers because the strong parallel movement of the current may make it difficult for swimmers to return to shore. The currents can not be observed by watching the surface of the water, so water conditions may be dangerous even if the surface looks calm and tranquil.

Commissioner Fred Stonehouse said all ideas brought before city officials will be considered by the city's waterfront safety task force, which will study the city's waterfront and make recommendations on how to improve safety before next summer's swimming season. However he said some ideas may not be practical.

Stonehouse said building a breakwater to the rock or blowing it up are unlikely to happen.

"It's certainly not realistic given the current climate we have with bottomlands protection not only from the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Natural Resources and Environment but also the Army Corps of Engineers," Stonehouse said.

He said floating ropes may increase safety but only if the beach were guarded as well.

"I think if you were to put a floating rope in alone without other protection measures with it, it would certainly be an invitation to disaster. If you make a floating rope as part of a guarded beach then I think you have an entirely different situation," Stonehouse said.

Ron Kinnunen, an educator with the Michigan Sea Grant, works with coastal communities and businesses in the Upper Peninsula to apply science-based knowledge to address Great Lakes issues.

He said a floating rope system may make a swimming area known to be dangerous more attractive to inexperienced swimmers which would defeat the purpose of warning people not to swim there.

Kinnunen said he has been studying rip currents for many years and the Michigan Sea Grant communications staff at University of Michigan developed rip current warning signs and brochures that are used throughout the country. He said he worked with the city to develop a sign about longshore currents specific to Picnic Rocks. City officials said the signs will be put up by next swimming season.

"We're also working on getting a current meter so we can have some kind of information from Picnic Rocks about what the flow of water is going between the land and those rocks," he said.

Kinnunen said he's close to acquiring funds for the meter from Great Lakes Observing System.

According to city officials, the members of the volunteer waterfront safety task force will be announced at the city commission meeting on Monday. Mayor John Kivela said the city has one goal in mind.

"My goal and the goal now of city staff, is to have the most advanced water safety plan on the Great Lakes, period. I want Marquette to be the model community and we can do it," he said.

Christopher Diem can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. His e-mail address is



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