The Drowning Trap (some river safety information)

This past Monday a canoer drowned on the St Joseph River near Andrews University which is just about the same spot as the last incident a couple months ago.

I’m not a safety zealot but this type of drowning really bothers me since it’s how rivers take people in my neighborhood. Following the last incident I was lucky to find Dr. Robert Kauffman of Frostburg University; he has extensive experience in this type of drowning and was kind enough to share a PowerPoint slide show. I think it’s a great piece of work. I love the reality check around how much current it takes to knock a man over…2 mph is more than enough and 1 mph may do it.

Overall I think it’s pretty simple in that many folks dramatically overestimate their ability to swim in current and dramatically underestimate the power of river currents. Maybe they also underestimate the chance that they will end up swimming. The St Joseph is pretty wide so one could end up having to swim a long way to get out.


We had two drownings this week locally of “kayakers”. Commonality was the lack of PFD.

Make your choice.


I’m not sure if the PowerPoint link works so here are a couple of related YouTube videos.

PFD’s would likely have saved most local victims. In my mind the Drowning Trap concept is simply trying to make people aware of the dangers (like the educational signage). I think basic awareness of the dangers of moderate river currents could help a lot more people than just paddlers and as discussed in the video some people will readily adopt a safety practice like a PFD if you give them the knowledge as to why it’s important.

People don’t appreciate the force of moving water. A 180 lb person standing half submerged in a river would weigh 90 lbs if standing on a scale placed on the riverbed. Two cubic feet of water weighs 125 lbs. so it doesn’t take very many cubic feet of moving water (even if moving slowly) to overcome whatever resistance the person might offer. Swimming is the only option, and not a very good one if in panic mode without a PFD.


In RI we have also had two fatalities so far this summer – both were Good Samaritans who swam out to save distresses swimmers only to drown themselves – no PFDs in those cases either. One happened a few days ago at a beach down the road from where we are staying on vacation.

Putting on the PFD is an important start, but having the skills (paddling and rescue), understanding the conditions, having the support you need are all just as important as you move to more challenging conditions – moving or open water.

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I like those simple, teachable points. I had reached out to Dr. Kauffman specifically looking for ways to teach about river currents. He did an experiment with a 165 pound man in the Potomac and it took only 2-2.5 fps current to knock him over in waist deep water and 1-1.5 fps in chest deep water. And 2 miles per hour is 3 feet per second. And 4 mph current can look just like 2 mph but the kinetic energy is four times higher. And even a T-shirt creates a ton of drag when swimming.

It’s not even that people underedstmate the danger; they are completely unaware of the danger like a blind person walking off a cliff.

Yes it’s beach and tourist season on the Lake Michigan beaches and there have been a flurry of fatalities within the last couple of weeks including a good samaritan fatality over the 4th of July weekend. The latest one is close to home. No easy solutions I guess.