2018-07-12 / Front Page

Big lake scene of 2nd chance

In love and life
By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff


JAMIE RACKLYEFT and his bride, Susie, were married Saturday at Van’s beach, where he nearly died in a rip current. JAMIE RACKLYEFT and his bride, Susie, were married Saturday at Van’s beach, where he nearly died in a rip current. Jamie Racklyeft nearly lost his life in a rip current while swimming in Lake Michigan near Leland.

Saturday, nearly six years later, he returned to the Van’s Beach, where he was married.

“It’s symbolic. I got a second chance at life that day at Van’s Beach,” he said before his shoreline nuptials. “Susie and I had dated 30 years ago. Then we grew apart but reconnected four years ago. . . .

“It’s our second chance at love.”

Racklyeft’s family previously owned a summer home on Platte Bay, much of which is now part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. On the last week of summer vacation in 2012, he visited Leland to “play in the waves,” Racklyeft said.

It didn’t take long for playfulness to turn serious. He soon felt himself being pulled out into deeper water by a rip current, a surface current flowing outward from a shore that results from the return flow of waves and wind-driven water.


LAKE MICHIGAN had multiple shades of blue at Van’s Beach, remarkably similar to the conditions of Aug. 30, 2012 when Jamie Racklyeft nearly drowned in a rip current. Brian Rolston, 16, died at the beach later that day. LAKE MICHIGAN had multiple shades of blue at Van’s Beach, remarkably similar to the conditions of Aug. 30, 2012 when Jamie Racklyeft nearly drowned in a rip current. Brian Rolston, 16, died at the beach later that day. “I knew to swim parallel to the shore. I flipped on my back and treaded water, but the waves were relentless, four to five feet — one right after the other,” Racklyeft said.

“At that time, I realized no one was coming for me. This is how I would die.”

As he struggled to stay afloat, his mind wandered, thinking about family and relatives who had passed before him. Racklyeft blacked out before he remembers two strangers who had ventured out in a kayak to keep him from going out farther.

“I don’t remember much,” Racklyeft said. “Witnesses said I grabbed a hold of the kayak and they brought me in. I never found out their names. I wasn’t able to thank them.”

Racklyeft’s incident was one of two near-drownings that day at Van’s. Later that day he learned that 16-year-old Brian Paul Rolston had drowned in the rip current.

“I had a lot of survivor guilt,” Racklyeft said. “Why did I survive and that boy died? He had is whole life ahead of him.”

Racklyeft, who is administrative program director for Michigan Institute for Clinical & Health Research at the University of Michigan, channeled his guilt by forming the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium.

The group now counts as members more than 300 people working across eight Great Lakes. They include first responders, community leaders, park rangers, research scientists, lifeguards, meteorologists, survivors, loved ones and other water safety advocates.

In addition to providing information and education, the campaign is responsible for posting signage on water safety.

After the Leland drowning, rip current signs and life rings have been installed at many Lake Michigan accesses locally, including Van’s Beach. A red warning flag goes up during periods of heavy rip currents.

“We’re able to get more accomplished than if we were working individually,” Racklyeft said.

The newly-wed groom said his wedding was amazing.

“I’ve never seen the water so beautiful, and the conditions were remarkably similar to that day in 2012,” he said.

According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, since 2010 a total of about 660 people have drowned on the Great Lakes.

The year that Rolston died, 2012, ties 2016 for the highest number of reported Great Lakes drownings at 99.

The year with the fewest drownings was 54 in 2014.

Through Friday, July 5, 37 drownings had been recorded in the Great Lakes: 17 in Lake Erie; 10 in Lake Michigan; five in Lake Ontario and four in Lake Huron.

For his part, every chance he gets, Racklyeft offers advice to swimmers.

Last week it was “wear a life jacket.”

“As men, we sometimes overestimate our abilities … thinking we’re less manly if you wear one,” Racklyeft said. “Even Navy Seals wear life jackets.”

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