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Great Lakes water safety

water lapping on sandy lakeshore

Great Lakes water safety

Great Lakes can be dangerous. Keep water and pier safety in mind.

The Great Lakes are large, powerful water systems prone to dangerous currents that can threaten even the most experienced swimmer. Rip and structural currents, high waves and other dangerous currents and wave conditions can occur along beaches, near the outlets of rivers and near structures such as piers and breakwalls.

Many state parks, but not all, offer swim areas identified by buoys or markers, a beach flag warning system and water depth less than 5 feet at the time of installation.

Check current swim risk »

Great Lakes flag warning system at buoyed swim areas in state parks

Double red flags, one with the word red and one with a safety icon

Do not enter the water, dangerous conditions. Respect the new law (find info below) that prohibits water access and do not enter the water.

Red flag with the word red

High surf and/or strong currents. It's recommended that you stay on the beach.

Yellow flag with the word yellow

Moderate surf and/or currents. Watch for dangerous currents and high waves.

Green flag with the word green

Calm conditions. Enter the water, but exercise caution.

New law prohibits water access from a beach when risks are present

If you see double red flags, you are not allowed to enter the water from the beach. Unless otherwise directed, visitors can still enjoy spending time on the beach. Risks can include, but are not limited to:

  • Severe weather events identified by the National Weather Service.
  • Hazardous waves and/or dangerous water conditions present.
  • Active rescue or recovery efforts.
  • Water contamination.
  • Unsafe debris washing ashore.

Closures/limits can also be identified by park signage and/or by verbal communication from DNR parks or law enforcement staff.

An exception is made for surfers using wind-powered or self-propelled wave-riding boards when they enter at their own risk and follow safety rules. Read Land Use Order 5.1.6 for full details.

Buoyed swim areas offer safety features

Whether located on the Great Lakes or inland, swim areas in state parks offer additional safety measures and visual cautions. It's important to note that not all state parks have swim areas. These areas are identified by:

  • Markers and/or buoys.
  • Water depth less than 5 feet at the time of installation (and inspected approximately every 14 days).
  • A beach flag warning system (only in buoyed swim areas along the Great Lakes in nearly 30 state parks).
  • Access to lifesaving flotation device and equipment.
  • Other site-specific safety measures, such as electronic messaging boards, signage and public address systems.
Buoys, markers and the flag system are typically installed prior to the Memorial Day holiday weekend and are removed after Labor Day (due to high winds, waves, and water temperatures). On-shore rescue equipment will remain along the shoreline for as long as weather allows, typically through late September or early October.

There are no beach guards (or life guards) at state parks, so never swim alone and always keep a close watch over children. It's especially important to bring U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets, especially for young, new and inexperienced swimmers.

Find state parks with buoyed swim areas

(* = located on a Great Lake)

About dangerous currents

dangerous currents sign

Types of currents

In the Great Lakes, swimmers are most likely to encounter one of five common currents:

  • Rip currents.
  • Structural currents.
  • Channel currents.
  • Longshore currents.
  • Outlet currents (river channel).

Learn about Great Lakes currents »

Flip, Float, Follow diagram

How to escape a current



  • Keep head above water.
  • Calm yourself down from fear and panic; don't panic.
  • Conserve your energy.

FOLLOW: Follow the safest path to safety / out of the water.

  • Do not fight the current.
  • Follow the current to assess which way it's flowing. Swim perpendicular to the flow.
  • Too tired to swim, continue floating and try to signal for help.
picture of current perpendicular to pier in danger zone

Pier safety / structural currents

Piers create furiously strong underwater currents. The currents are called structural currents and can be found alongside structures, such as piers and breakwalls. When paired with others longshore or rip currents, the combination can create a washing machine effect, moving swimmers from one dangerous current area to another with no clear path to safety.

  • Never jump off or swim near piers and breakwalls.
  • If you end up swimming near pier and are trapped, call for help. Call for someone to throw life ring or anything that floats. Get to ladder, if possible.

Additional safety tips

  • Never swim alone, always keep close watch over children and bring U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets, especially for new and inexperienced swimmers.
  • Keep close watch of children: Stay within arm's reach and have them wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket.
  • If you see someone in trouble, call for help and throw the lifesaving device or anything else that floats. Avoid entering the water if possible and, if you must go, wear a life jacket.
  • Use caution or avoid the use of recreational flotation devices when strong offshore winds are present.
  • In an emergency, immediately call 911. At Holland and Grand Haven state parks, use the nearest red zone number boards (located on the beach) to help relay your location as accurately as possible.
  • During certain weather conditions, the force of water and waves crashing over the surface can easily wash someone off a structure.
  • Some state parks along the Great Lakes have life jacket loaner stations available.
  • Check local weather reports and lake conditions before and during your beach trip. Visit the National Weather Service at