Warm air, cold water sucker punch

Published 6:19 am Saturday, May 31, 2003

By Staff
In my 21 years of dealing with search and rescue on Lake Michigan, I consider cold water the greatest life-threatening element in the Lake's arsenal of deadly weather tools, especially in the spring when warm winds blow and cold water flows. Boaters lured out onto the water by warm winds, as one might be lured by warmth of a beguiling lover, often fail to see the cold cruel intent that lies beneath the surface.
In other words more suiting of a sailor, I call it a warm air cold water sucker punch. The following stories have appeared in Boat Smart over the years; they show how several boaters nearly went down for the count when delivered a warm air cold water sucker punch. In 11 years, this is the first time I recycled a column, but it's a message worth repeating especially this time of the year.
Grand Traverse Bay, Lake Michigan
Corbin Buttleman and his sister couldn't have wished for a nicer boating day on Grand Traverse Bay – or a warmer one. Exceptionally warm weather lifted temperatures into the mid-90s, a rare heat wave for early June in northern Michigan.
The 27-year-old Corbin and his sister, along with four friends, simmered in the midday sun aboard a pontoon boat in East Traverse Bay, approximately 150 yards off shore. The furthest thing from Corbin's mind when he foolishly pushed his sister off the boat into shallow water was that it could be fatal.
In fact, even after he pushed her overboard, the crew continued on with their merriment. It wasn't until his wife and then Corbin saw life-threatening fear in his sister's eyes, she couldn't cry out, something was dreadfully wrong. He impulsively dove in and instantly realized his sister's plight – ice cold water ripped the breath from his lungs. The others aboard, including a state trooper friend, appeared oblivious to the prevailing trauma.
Corbin's sister clasped her arms around her brother, drawing him under. Floundering to stay afloat, Corbin struggled toward shore. Fortunately his feet found the bottom and he was able to reach safe waters with his sister in tow. I asked him on a scale from 1-10 how close he came to drowning? He responded – 10. It was that close; the cold water nearly broke his will. I asked him why he didn't throw his sister a flotation device. It never occurred to him; he dove in because that's what they do in the movies.
He told me that he had lived near water all this life, kept physically fit, yet a seemingly benign environment nearly claimed his life.
Corbin told me his story during an airplane flight from California to Michigan in late March. In fact, it was March 29, 2000. I remember the date because when I arrived home in Manistee I was greeted by headlines in the local paper of three young men who were rescued from Manistee Lake after their 14-foot boat capsized. Later, I spoke with Leland Reed, one of the young men involved; his recollection of the events sounded much like Corbin's story.
A nice day, an inland lake, only yards from shore. "I never thought I would be swimming that day. In the water, I thought, how in the heck did I get here?" said Reed
Reed and his friend's ordeal began when winds whipped Manistee Lake into white caps. Beating into the seas only a few hundred yards off shore, they began taking on water.
Reed struggled to slip into a life jacket floating nearby.
I told him that trying to put a like jacket on in water is like trying to put on a safety belt during a car wreck.
A boater on shore who spotted the three men at first took their heads for buoys. Their cries drew his attention. He pulled them to shore in his 14-foot boat. A wise move, since hauling them aboard may well have capsized his boat.
Reed is a big fellow at 6-4 and 290 pounds. I certainly would like him on my side if it came to blows.
But that and 75 cents will get you a cup of coffee when it comes to a seemingly friendly water environment.
As Reed said: "It never occurred to him that this could happen in friendly familiar waters."
The fact is, that is when it most often does. This is especially true this time of the year on Lake Michigan and connecting lakes when warm air fools you into believing the water is warm.
Not so. I went to my Boat Smart web site (www.boatsmart.net) on Memorial Day to get Lake Michigan water temperatures between Frankfort and Michigan City, Ind. It showed an average water temperature of 43 degrees with 38 degrees at Frankfort and 49 at Michigan City.
The National Weather service is forecasting air temperatures in the high to low 70s by the end of the week for Western Michigan .
Boat Smart, don't be fooled by a warm air cold water sucker punch. But if you are, beat the count by wearing a life jacket.