It doesn’t make sense to Dave Benjamin that people are taught what to do if their clothes catch on fire or they need emergency help, but not how to prevent themselves from drowning.
Despite repetition of the stop-drop-and-roll mantra and the 9-1-1 dialing procedure, few adults or children know what to do if they get stranded in deep water.
“How often do you play in fire? Never, and you know a fire survival strategy,” said Benjamin, a Homewood resident. “How often do we play in water? All the time, and most people don’t know a water survival strategy.”
After spending a decade teaching people water survival through his organization, the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, Benjamin recently received the 2020 Lifesaver of the Year Award from the National Drowning Prevention Alliance.
Birth of a life’s work
Benjamin began formally offering presentations through GLSRP in June 2011 and has since conducted nearly 850 in seven of the eight Great Lakes states.
However, he marks the start of the organization as the day he nearly drowned in Lake Michigan.
It was early morning on the day after Christmas 2010. Benjamin paddled out into the slushy lake with two other surfers to catch waves from a strong swell pushed by an east wind. He surfed for a while, then when he had enough, sat on his board in the icy water.
As he rested, Benjamin noticed too late that a large wave was swelling up behind him. He jumped up onto the surfboard to ride it out.
“But it was a big wave, and I got into it late,” he said. “I went airborne, then had a 10 foot drop and fell on my back. Then a wave of slushballs came up and pushed me to the bottom. My leash came off. This was the first time I was without my surfboard.”
Surfboards act as a water conveyance, but surfers also rely on them as flotation devices while out in deep water. A leash normally keeps the board attached to the surfer’s ankle.
Stranded without his board and without his friends noticing, Benjamin panicked. He was 150 yards from shore in freezing water, drifting toward an ice-covered wall that he could see battering his beloved surfboard as it banged against.
Then Benjamin said his body took on the “instinctive drowning response,” a well documented panicked reaction to being in deep water — body vertical, mouth open, head tilted back, hands treading water in a ladder-like motion.
“Everything I was doing was not working. It was making it worse, I was drowning myself,” Benjamin said. “The waves kept coming and I was exhausted. I came to the point of acceptance that, ‘This is it. This is how I will leave this life.’ I gave up fighting.”
He floated onto his back, which provided time to rest and offered a moment of clarity. Benjamin stopped panicking and realized that to save himself, he needed to think of a better course of action.
He began a steady backstroke toward shore, taking a number of breaks to rest. It took nearly 40 minutes of swimming to make it back to the beach, as Benjamin moved between his forward progress and the current pulling him back out.
“When someone is drowning, they think it’s a sprint. They feel like they need to get out of the water as quickly as possible. But it’s a marathon,” Benjamin said.
Helping others with his story
That’s a message he brings to school assemblies, community organizations and surf groups through the GLSRP. During his presentations, Benjamin teaches people a method to save themselves from drowning that he calls, “Flip, float and follow.”
First, people must avoid panicking, which will send them into an instinctive drowning response. When this happens, the person is desperately working to keep their mouth and nose above water, but their vertical body position prevents them from screaming for help or waving their arms.
People in this panicked state also sometimes illogically fail to kick their legs to keep themselves afloat. Acting in this panicked manner causes an adult to drown in 60 seconds or less, Benjamin said.
Instead, a person should avoid the natural tendency to “stand up” in the water during a drowning emergency. Flip onto your back instead and float atop the water, a position that allows you to breathe freely and use minimal effort.
“What’s most important when you’re drowning? You have to stay at the surface and continue breathing,” Benjamin said. “If you can’t get over that panic attack, it won’t be possible.”
After you flip onto your back, and float in order to rest and make a plan, then follow a safe route toward the shore. The best path may not be obvious — especially because not everyone studies the science of currents like Benjamin — but he said it helps to remember “breaking waves are moving toward shore.”
A life spent swimming
Growing up in Richton Park, Benjamin said he learned to love the water during summer days spent swimming at Park Forest Aqua Center. He also remembers playing in the waves of Lake Michigan every summer, especially on trips to Warren Dunes State Park in Michigan.
He continued swimming recreationally and for exercise through college, when he also earned SCUBA certification.
While living in Huntington Beach, Calif., in 2005 and 2006, Benjamin said he enjoyed the beach almost daily. He wanted to try surfing, but never did “because I was kind of chicken.”
He finally took up the sport in 2008, after his family moved back to Illinois. At age 50, Benjamin still enjoys surfing out of the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk, then coming home to his wife, Marie. Together they have three children, ages 26, 18 and 10, and one grandchild.
The GLSRP is now Benjamin’s full time job, and he works passionately at spreading the word about the importance of water safety.
While many people consider themselves strong swimmers, he said everyone should specifically be ready for a drowning emergency. He wants them to avoid the panic and helplessness he felt in that icy Lake Michigan water.
“At that point in time, I had been surfing about a year and a half. I had absolutely no fear of the water or waves. I had been in big chaotic surf and never had any problems,” Benjamin said. “It’s a huge overwhelming effect in the water. You need to be ready.”