Lessons Learned from local tragedy

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.



Thanks for sharing. So many accident reports contain similar themes:

Failure to plan
Failure to imagine what might happen
Disregard of common sense; for example, the inner tube as suitable substitute for PFD
Lack of knowledge and skills
Ego protective decision making. For example, “I’m fit and feeling good, no reason I can’t swim across that river.”

I always think of these two things when heading out, whether to go camping, paddling or cycling:

  1. The greatest drummer in the world, Neil Peart, wrote several books about traveling by motorcycle. His mantra, each time he mounted up, was “it mustn’t be my fault” I must be safer than the next guy.

  2. In the mountain guiding world, there’s a debriefing technique at the end of the day where guide and clients answer the question “How did we die today?” and analyze their decision making. One could just as easily ask that question before heading out.


Reading these stories always amazes me. For some reason many people become victims because they inaccurately interpret conditions. PFDs, bouyancy and swimming ability is one thing; being able to assess conditions of temperature, wind, current and distance is still another; but most of all in many of these incidents is a lack of judgement and poor decision making.

We can look for solutions to everybody’s folly, but ultimately it comes to judgement, poor decision making or inadequate equipment. No matter which tragedy we cite, it comes to at least one of the above. A change in any one of those legs could often avert tragedy. You can have the best equipment, state-of-the-art immersion gear, impeccable planning, be in peak physical condition, and still get into trouble.

An experienced and properly prepared person can survive in a placid lake, but the equation turns against them on that Atlantic crossing 2,000 from the nearest landmass. Who cares if you can swim the English Channel with an anvil your back - who is around to help. A rec boater with a cheap approved lifejacket paddling close to shore on a summer day has better odds, even with no swimming skills. Paradoxically, we typically view the experienced paddler as heroic when failure claims them, while the rec boater is considered a rube if they misjudge conditions or an unexpected wind carries their boat into treacherous waters.

Traversing the same white water course for twenty years is of little value if you capsize in unusually high water, then whack your head against a rock and get trapped under water in a strainer - what good is your experience. Wear a life jacket in every boating adventure, then go to the ocean beach to body surf and swim, only to get caught in a rip tide and wash out to sea. That red cross swim certification is on the wall at home, but forgetting the cardinal rule of not swimming against the current can result in a bad day. Even wearing a PFD could work against survival if the wind and current takes you too far from shore. So
now the devision is to shed the PFD and use your swimming skills - decisions, decisions, decisions . . . So the next question isvwhy didnt I stay in bed this morning. How often is the proper remedy for getting out of a rip current repeated, yet people still drown in rip currents. Don’t dive if you don’t know the depth of water, yet people die jumping without knowing the depth of the water. Viable solutions often depend on one thing - sound judgement.

You might have your health, but without sound judgement, nothing else really matters. There’s one inescapable fact. Legislating requirements can fix some things but not all. Require seat belts, but people won’t wear them; require them to be worn, many still don’t and would rather pay a fine; install disconnects so the car won’t work unless the seatbelt is worn, some will figure out a bypass. How can life be this hard. We know life is hard, because dying is easier.

The rules for living are not hard to follow. There are tragedies, accidents and accidents waiting to happen. We experience all that in a lifetime. Living for another day can often be enhanced by sound judgement. You can teach it, but you can’t enforce it. We all make mistakes, so all you can do is stack the deck in your favor . . . Yes that’s allowed, so “take advantage of every advantage”, because D E D is ded!


Yup. Swimming in a pool is not managing moving water.


@Bobonli you make some interesting points. The end of day debrief with guides and clients shows a desire (a “pull”) for knowledge and continuous improvement. In automotive engineering Lessons Learned are captured and reused in a standardized way so that mistakes are not repeated. Unfortunately the paddling world is more open-loop.

@Jyak yes it was a simple case of bad judgment to one first responder…wrong spot and no PFD. I think many people are just naiive so they make mistakes.

It’s the second time in 3 years that an adult drowned on my local stretch of river while trying to help a struggling 8 year old that went in intentionally to play.

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Being a witness to drownings weights heavy on the soul. A 4-year-old girl went missing one Christmas holiday in the neighborhood. There was also a pond. I helped with the search. When she didn’t turn up divers were called in that found her. When I was a teen, we lived on a lake near Tampa. A man 3 houses down from us drowned while swimming with the woman he was dating and her two small girls to a small island about 100 yards off our back yard. They had those orange life jackets on he didn’t. I was the one that pulled him up off the bottom. It proved to be too late. Your experience posted here brings back many of the thoughts from those experiences. Life is just a missed breath or heartbeat away from ending. When we take risks, we should at least understand them, and prepare accordingly. You don’t want to get to the point where you are thinking “if only I”.

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Sad how the tragedy affects innocent people. Even if the victim doesn’t want or expect assistance theyll probably get it. It sounds silly to say "if you don’t value your own life, think about the fitst responder or good Samaritans. Sound judgement applies to them as well, and they need to carefully evaluate a situation before blindly jumping into to offer assistance.