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July 18, 2013

Kayaker is 3rd 'dry drowning' in lake community this summer

LELAND, Mich. — The death of a kayaker in Lake Michigan this week was the third caused by "dry drowning" -- in which cold water closes off airways --  in the Grand Traverse region of northern Michigan this summer.

Robert J. Womac, 70, was kayaking with another man Tuesday when a large wave overtook them about 100 yards from shore, Leelanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich told the Record-Eagle. He said a witness called 911 at about 4 p.m. and reported the kayak was upside-down and two victims were in the water.

Womac wasn't wearing a life preserver, but the other rider was, Borkovich said. The other rider told authorities the water was "glass calm" when they left from Womac's summer home, but winds soon whipped up 3-foot waves that capsized their kayak.

"It threw them about 20 feet from the boat when they went over," Borkovich said.

Medical Examiner Matthew Houghton said a postmortem exam performed Wednesday showed Womac’s likely cause of death was "laryngospastic dry drowning" — a reflex response triggered by exposure to cold water. Dry drowning victims show little or no water in their lungs.

"(They gulp) in water and it aggravates the epiglottis and closes off the breathing system," Houghton said.

Miles Percy Smith, 16, of Wyandotte, Mich., and Michael Anthony Michalski, 53, of Fife Lake, Mich., both died June 23 in separate incidents that were ruled dry drownings. Houghton said colder-than-normal water temperatures this summer explain the three dry drowning deaths: surface temperatures where Womac was found were 67 degrees.

"He was found in 11 feet of water," Houghton said. “The temperature drops about 1 degree a foot. Anything below 68 (degrees) can cause a laryngospasm."

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Details for this story provided by the Traverse City (Mich.) Record-Eagle.

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