A 42 year old woman (Shirani Simpson) drowned in the St Joseoh River here in SW MI about 2 weeks ago and now that the body has been recovered I wanted to share the key learnings. I spent 8 days looking for her, talking to first responders and reporters, and mapping out river currents with my GPS to try to understand what happened.
I think the biggest mistake was underestimating the power of the river current. This is the accident site.
The river narrows and goes around a 180 degree bend and the current is 4 mph. They chose the fastest spot in the 20 mile stretch of the river to play in. 4 mph current will overwhelm any swimmer. After the bend the river widens again and one would have to swim hundreds of yards to get to shore…assuming you choose the right shore to swim towards.
So the water still looks smooth at 4 mph. It doesn’t look much different than 2 mph but the forces are four times higher at 4 mph vs 2 mph. For reference a Coast Guard rescue swimmer must be able to swim 500 yards in 12 minutes. That’s only 1.4 mph! I think that even 3 mph current is plenty dangerous and requires respect.
==> So it blows my mind that most folks will look at the river, say it looks “pretty calm”, and assume they could swim across it even though it’s something they’ve never done. Pretty much insanely optimistic about their swimming skills.
It’s also disorienting that folks around here seem to have some awareness of the dangers of rip currents in Lake Michigan but they aren’t afraid of equally fast and powerful river currents that they can see! Right now the river is flowing about 3500 cfs but it starts the year around 10000 cfs and currents are 5-6 mph in places.
The second major lesson is the standard theme around PFD’s and swimming skills. I’m passionate about swimming skills since you always have them with you. But this tragedy was also an example of why a buoyancy aid like an inner tube isn’t a substitute for a PFD because if the inner tube gets away from you in current then you have a problem. It was a little creepy finding the inner tubes involved in the incident.
SAFE PADDLING EVERYONE!