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Lake Michigan Hazards

Lake Michigan looks a lot like the sea a lot of the time. They don't call the Great Lakes great for nothing.

Yachtsman Ted Turner once made an offhand remark about sailing on "mill ponds" before embarking on his first Chicago-Mackinac race. He was rewarded for this comment when his boat was demasted in a sudden storm. Not many things can humble Ted Turner.

(The Chicago-Mackinac is a big yacht race covering the 333 miles between Chicago and Mackinac island (pronounced Mackinaw) in Michigan each July.)

When out on Lake Michigan, please be aware of the special hazards, some of which include:

water level
After several years of record high water levels, the lake has receded to record low levels. See current Great Lakes Water Levels from the Army Corps of Engineers. This shows the water level in June, 2002 is 43 inches below the record high level of June, 1986.

Be careful to not run over a submerged object, especially at high speed.

The Lake is pretty cold most of the year. Even when the surface gets warm, it's still frigid a few feet down. Consider adding a wetsuit under your PFD.

A nice sunny day can turn into "The White Squall" in minutes. The Coast Guard helicopter rescue base is now located across the lake in Muskegon, Michigan, roughly 45 minutes flying time from Chicago. Probably a good idea to be wearing your PFD while you wait. A Coast Guard spokesman was recently quoted by the Sun Times to the effect of "we can't save everyone".

(power) boats
OK, it's probably not as bad as the Chain O' Lakes, but there are a lot of power boats and PWC out there with less than thoughtful operators. Last year a Hobie Cat was run down by a power boat off of Wilmette Beach with serious propeller injuries to the Hobie skipper. More recently, one jet skier was struck and killed by another jet skier off Chicago.

big boats
The big "lake boats" and ocean-going "salties" are usually a lot more considerate than your typical jet skier, but at least in theory, the PWC can swerve to avoid you. Not so the big guys.

getting lost
There are no tides to speak of on Lake Michigan, but there is wind, current, fog, and darkness to worry about. Unlike the smaller bodies of water described in these pages, you can lose sight of land on the big pond. A jet skier recently spent a couple of nights drifting on the lake after his engine failed. He was finally able to use one of his rear-view mirrors to signal rescuers.

Aside from the temperature, a swim in Lake Michigan is probably a better bet than a swim in many of the inland bodies of water. Nonetheless, before eating fish from Lake Michigan, you should check the Illinois DNR web site regarding Class 1, 2 and 3 fish to be sure that what you catch can be safely eaten.

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