Web Content Viewer
Web Content Viewer

Beach Safety on Lake Erie

The shore along Ohio’s Lake Erie coast can be remarkably different from place to place. Some stretches consist of foot-friendly sand perfect for wiggling your toes while other areas have a mixture of cobble, rocks and shell fragments great for skipping stones.

Whether at a cobble or sand beach, the swimming conditions in Lake Erie can be very different than those of a pool or inland pond. There are waves, currents, sand bars, drop offs and other factors that should be taken into consideration. Each are explained below.

Beach Safety Tips


  • Wear life jackets at the beach if you don’t know how to swim and during big waves.
  • Keep hydrated. On hot days, you are losing water through your skin and the water needs to be replaced.
  • Lake Erie’s bottom is not flat. Sudden drop offs from raised sandbars can occur. Waist deep water is a good rule of thumb for playing with friends.
  • Currents in Lake Erie can be dangerous!
    • Any current flowing faster than 2 mph is considered dangerous. Dangerous currents can exceed 5 mph — faster than an Olympic swimmer can swim.
    • Currents can pull swimmers away from shore.
    • Structures can create dangerous currents.
  • If you get caught in a current, flip on your back, float and follow the safest course to safety.
  • Learn the signs of drowning.
  • If you see someone who needs help:
    • Throw anything that floats to them, like a life ring, life jacket, cooler or inflated beach toy.
    • Seek help from park staff, friends or others at the beach and call 911.
    • Shout to the person in danger, and direct them to flip on their back and float until someone can assist them, or they can swim out of the current toward shore.What Does Drowning Look Like?

Wave Action

Throughout Lake Erie there is an interconnected circulation system powered by wind, waves, the sun, river flow and water density differences. The shape of Lake Erie's lakebed, its shore and the human-made structures along the shore influence the path of circulation.

While at times Lake Erie can be flat and calm, as wind blows across Lake Erie’s surface, energy is transferred from the wind to the water. This energy generates currents and builds waves. The wind energy transferred into wave creation is a small percentage of the wind’s total energy, but it is an enormous amount of energy that impacts wave height and wave period, both of which should be observed before entering the water.

Wave period is the length of time between the crests, or tops, of consecutive waves. Waves on Lake Erie have a short wave period, which means they travel toward shore faster than ocean waves. On Lake Erie, wave periods can be as short as 3 seconds. This means if a swimmer gets knocked off balance by a wave, a new wave would be hitting them every 3 seconds, leaving little time to recover or catch a breath.

Wave height is how tall a wave is from the crest (top) to the trough (bottom) of a wave. Wave height is dependent on numerous factors including wind speed, wind duration (how long the wind blows), water depth and fetch, which is the distance over water that the wind blows in a single direction.

Lake Erie’s water depth varies along different regions and reaches of the coast. It also varies seasonally and yearly. Wind speed, duration and fetch vary throughout the day in intensity, direction and distance. The faster the wind, the longer it blows in time and distance, and deep water becoming shallower rapidly will make the largest waves. The higher the waves, the more care should be given when recreating along the shore. According to research by Michigan Sea Grant, the most fatalities and rescues on the Great Lakes have occurred when waves ranged from 3 to 5 feet high.

Rip, Longshore and other Great Lakes Currents

Rip Currents

Due to lakebed variations, waves may break strongly in some locations and weakly in others causing the water to converge in narrow, river-like currents moving away from shore. These are known as rip currents and can occur at any beach with breaking waves.

Rip currents do not pull people under the water; they pull people away from shore. The size and lakeward pull of rip currents varies. Drowning usually occurs when people panic and are unable to keep themselves afloat. Signs of rip currents can include a channel of churning, choppy water; an area of water of a different color; a line of algae or debris moving steadily offshore; or a break in the incoming wave pattern (waves usually do not break as readily in a rip current as in adjacent water).

Rip currents are more likely to form near beaches with a sand bar and channel system in the near shore. They can also occur when a water current traveling along the shore is interrupted by a structure such as a groin or jetty. Extra precaution should be taken when swimming near shore structures. If caught in a rip current, you will feel yourself being pulled away from the shore.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends taking the following actions:

  • Remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly.
  • Never fight the current. Instead, swim out of the current in a direction parallel to the shore or float/tread water until the current stops pulling you lakeward.
  • When out of the current, swim at an angle away from the current toward the shore.
  • If you are still unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself by waving your arm and yelling for help.
  • If you see someone in trouble, get help from a lifeguard, or call 9-1-1; throw the victim something that floats and yell instructions on how to escape.

Learn more: NOAA National Weather Service Rip Current Safety

Longshore CurrentsLongshore Currents

Longshore currents move parallel to the shore. These currents’ force can make it difficult to remain in front of a spot on the beach. They often happen between the first and second sandbars near the shore. Longshore currents can move a swimmer swiftly down a beach. To escape a longshore current, swim or walk toward the shore.

Structural Currents

Structural CurrentsStructural currents, found alongside or as a result of structures including piers and breakwalls, are usually always present. Structural currents are often dangerously strong. Avoid jumping off or swimming near piers, jetties and breakwalls.

Outlet Currents

Outlet CurrentsOutlet currents can be found where rivers and streams empty into Lake Erie. The flow of water from the river or stream can move quickly. As it enters the lake’s open water it may take a while for the current to slow. To escape an outlet current, swim parallel to the shore.

Channel Currents

Channel CurrentsChannel currents flow parallel to shore, between the beach and an offshore structure, island or group of large rocks. If you are walking along a sand bar that extends from the shore to the offshore island or structure, the water can be very shallow. However, the channel current can push you off the sand bar just a few feet and the water can be much deeper, even over your head.

To escape a channel current, swim toward the shore. Avoid unstable sand bars and do not try to make it back to the sandbar if you were swept off one.