Pier Jumping Bill 4699
Amendment Request for Surfer Pier Access
Prepared by Bob Beaton
If the present pier jumping bill is interpreted to restrict surfers from accessing the lakes from piers it will mean a loss of life that would not occur otherwise. For over thirty-five years surfers have saved lives off the Grand Haven piers and adjoining beaches as well as many of the other piers and beaches of the Great Lakes. The life expectancy of a person washed off a pier into 6-8 ft. waves is less than seven minutes. Their proximity and ability to reach these victims in time with effective life saving equipment (surfboards), when life expectancy is measured in minutes, has resulted in the saving of many lives. Because of their specialized water skills during rough conditions, they alone are able to make rescues that official safety personnel cannot. (See Attachment 1)
These valuable skills were no more evident than in the November 10, 1975 rescue of a boy off the Grand Haven south pier which occurred at the exact hour that the giant ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald went down in Lake Superior. On that day three boys were washed off the pier. Three local surfers were able to get to the two surviving boys in less than a minute and keep them on their boards in raging 14 ft. waves and treacherous rip currents for an hour and a half. Official rescue personnel were unable to help and could only stand by and watch as the surfers fought the giant lake waves to keep the boys alive. The Coast Guard rescue craft could not overcome the mountainous waves in the channel and had to turn back. Finally, the surfers tried to get the boys in through the break, successfully rescuing one. The other boy was lost when the leash to the board he was being rescued on was snapped by a large wave. (See Attachment 2)
In a ceremony the following year the three surfers were awarded Gold Live Saving Medals by the Admiral of the U. S. Coast Guard. These Congressional medals are on par with the Congressional Medal of Honor except they are awarded to civilians as well as military and specifically for the saving of persons from the perils of the sea. Most of these medals are awarded posthumously. After the ceremony Admiral Siler took the three surfers aside and looking each of them straight in the eye said “we need your help.” (See Attachment 3)
Surfers had saved pier victims before that time and continued to do so up to the present day, the most recent of which was the rescue of a dog swept from the pier which merited national attention on CNN and Good Morning America. However, most of these rescues by surfers happen very quickly and generally go unnoticed, undocumented and are remembered only by those who were directly involved. (See Attachment 4)
It is no wonder that surfboards are used extensively by surf rescue teams in
Australia, Hawaii and worldwide. A surfboard can get in close to retrieve a
victim next to a pier where a rescue craft cannot. A surfboard has a much
smaller profile in the water and is less affected by waves than a boat or jet
ski. A surfboard is perfectly designed to go over around and under waves. If
caught in the wave impact zone a surfboard is very easy to retrieve by the
safety leash and it is much easier to manhandle a victim back onto the board.
Surfboards, because of their small size and weight, are very easy to carry and
launch off of piers and beaches.
(See Attachment 5)
Despite their value in rescues, surfboards are almost useless without a
competent operator. Surfing is not an easy sport to learn even though a good
surfer makes it look easy. It takes a great deal of time to learn how to just
paddle a surfboard through the surf, much less catch and ride a wave. Trying to
learn to surf on the lakes with their close wave frequency, often choppy
conditions and small wave faces is much more difficult than trying to learn to
surf on the well-spaced, large smooth-faced ocean swells. It takes years to
learn the balance points on a surfboard, to understand the physics of a breaking
wave and develop the timing necessary to catch and ride them. It would be very
unrealistic for a municipality to train existing water rescue personnel how to
effectively use a surfboard. Most ocean surf rescue teams select their members
from those who already know how to surf. Grand Haven surfers Scott Stinebower
and Jerry Laughead were both members of prestigious surf rescue teams on the
notorious North Shore of Oahu and the treacherous Outer Banks of North Carolina,
participating in hundreds of rescues.
(See Attachment 6)
Out of the water surfers have proven their safety value as well. A surfer
chaired the Grand Haven Pier Safety Task Force from 1988 to 1994, the first
committee of its kind in the United Sates and for which Grand Haven was awarded
a national safety award. It was a surfer who wrote the white paper specs at the
request of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers for the pier emergency call box at
Grand Haven and created a safety analysis of the G. H. piers which U. S. C. E.
District Chief Ross Kittleman publically said was the best study of its type
that he had ever seen. This same surfer created “Dangerous Piers – Deadly
Currents,” a beach & pier safety workbook for safety groups During 1998 lake
surfers started the Pier Watch program by which surfers all over the lakes
pledged to keep an eye on persons using the piers and beaches and advise them of
dangers. Surfer Vince Deur founded and heads the Great Lakes Beach & Pier
Safety Task Force, a safety group that includes various municipal, county,
state, federal and institutional agencies as well as corporate and individual
members. Vince, who is also a film maker, produced and distributed the highly
acclaimed DVD packet “Respect the Power” to all of Michigan’s school districts.
(See Attachments 7)
The pier jumping bill vaguely states that persons would be allowed to access the lake from the pier to save a life. The Great Lakes Surfing Association conducts surf rescue exercises off the pier at Grand Haven. This program is designed to educate/train surfers to save lives of persons washed off piers or caught in beach rip currents. Would this provision in the bill allow them to continue these valuable exercises, even though they are only training to save lives rather than saving them directly? (See Attachment 8)
District Chief Tom O’Bryan said in an Oct. 30, 2007 Grand Haven Tribune article regarding this bill:
"The negative part about it is for surfers," said Tom O'Bryan, chief of operations of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Grand Haven office. "Surfers are some of the safest in the lake. They know the currents, they know the area and they're wearing buoyant wet suits. They've saved a countless number of lives."
Chief Tom O’Bryan’s wife was saved by a surfer in a rip current off the Grand Haven State Park in 1987.
Those who object to surfers using the piers for access state that surfers
place themselves in danger by doing so and are an encouragement to others to go
out on the piers and take chances. Both of these points of view are an
indication of a lack of understanding of the sport of surfing and the history of
injury/fatality at the piers.
(See Attachment 9)
A person viewing automobiles for the first time would think it terribly dangerous for two vehicles approaching each other at 55 mph. on a two-lane road and missing one another by 6-10 feet. Yet, millions of people do that every day with a car load of kids in relative safety Surfers ride waves because they enjoy doing so, not because they like beating the odds taking risks. If accessing the lake from the piers was of any significant danger to a surfer or his surfboard he would not do it. Unlike the teenage pier jumpers, surfers have a thorough knowledge of the lake bottom, the currents the shallow and deep spots and most importantly their own abilities. During a season a surfer will access the lake from a particular pier hundreds of times. It becomes second nature to him. Surfers have safely accessed the lakes for over forty years. (See Attachment 10)
During the ’75 rescue at Grand Haven official safety personnel had to take a
back seat because of their lack of rough water skills, equipment and
experience. Following that remarkable rescue, some officials stated that the
presence of surfers on and around piers is an encouragement for others to run
out there and take risks. Anyone who sends any significant time at the piers
knows that there are risk takers running out there dodging waves or jumping off
regardless if surfers are there or not. The boy (Doug Middleton) who was saved
in the ’75 rescue said that they had decided to run out on that pier before even
leaving Grand Rapids and did not even notice the surfers in the water. On the
contrary, all 20 of the fatalities at the Grand Haven piers since 1925 have
happened when surfers were not there, except for that night in 1975, and the
surfers did their best in very extreme circumstances.
(See Attachment 11)
Despite the valiant effort of the surfers, pier safety committees, safety devices and public educational programs, fatalities continue at the Grand Haven piers. From 1925 up until 1988 a life was lost every 4.5 years. From 1988 when the present wave of pier safety activity began, to the end of the century (12 years) a life was lost every 3.2 years. From that time to present (7 years) a life has been lost every 2.3 years! Various factors come into play here: the amount of persons using the piers; how it is being used; attitudes of the persons using it; the physical changes in the structures themselves; the presence of life saving assets; water level fluctuation; shifting bottom contours; climate changes and other factors all play a part either negatively or positively. One factor for certain that does play positively on the rate of these tragedies is the presence of surfers. Simply put, if surfers are not there more lives will most definitely be lost. A provision to this bill to not restrict surfers and persons with flotation devices from accessing the lake from the piers will preserve this most valuable safety asset. (See Attachment 12)
There is a granite monument at the approach to the Grand Haven south pier donated by a surfer to the city in 1996. It reads:
“In memory of the lives lost off these piers.
In honor of those who tried to save them.” (See Attachment 13)
It would be a great honor to the surfers, and an act of appreciation by the people of Michigan, if a provision were written to this bill allowing them to enjoy the sport that they love and continue to save lives.