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Return Of Swimming Season Prompts Warning About Rip Currents

CHICAGO (CBS) -- This past weekend marked the unofficial start of summer and the outdoor swimming season, and it was also marked by drownings and water rescues.

A Chicago man drowned in the Wisconsin River on Saturday at the Wisconsin Dells, while trying to swim to shore after he had been fishing in the river. Rescuers said he was swept away by the strong river current.

In north suburban Antioch, a 46-year-old man died after jumping in Loon Lake to save a cat.

In the Daytona Beach area of Florida, officials said three people drowned, and hundreds of swimmers had to be rescued after getting caught in strong rip currents.

Dave Benjamin, executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, said there were three other drownings on the Great Lakes over the weekend – two in Lake Erie and one in Lake Ontario.

Benjamin said part of the problem is that too many people think they're better swimmers than they are.

"Males have a tendency to overestimate their abilities twice as much as females; and four out of five drowning victims tend to be male," he said.


Benjamin said a survey by the American Red Cross found 54% of Americans lack enough basic swimming skills to save their lives. Those skills include being able to re-surface after falling in water that's over your head, treading water for a minute, spinning around 360 degrees to spot an exit, and swimming 25 yards to an exit and climbing out by yourself.

If caught in a rip current, swimmers should flip on their backs, and float to keep their heads above water, stay calm,

"The emphasis is on float. So float around on your back, and float so that you keep your head above water. Float to conserve your energy. Float to calm yourself down from the fear and panic of drowning, and then follow the safest path out of the water," he said.

Because rip currents pull swimmers away from shore, rather than under water, swimmers typically drown when they panic and try to fight the current, and become exhausted. The National Weather Service advises swimmers to never try to fight the current by swimming directly in to shore, but instead try to break free of the current by swimming parallel to shore until they get out of the current, and then swim at an angle away from the current to land. Rip currents are typically narrow and once you swim to the side, you can escape.

"These dangerous currents are like a treadmill, and if you get caught, they're going to pull you out into deeper water. You can't win against a treadmill. You get on a treadmill, you're running, you're stationary, you're staying in place. The only way to beat it is to get off of it," Benjamin said.

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