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Boaters, paddle sport users make these mistakes most on Virginia waterways, expert warns

Expert urges 'know before you go' for staying safe on James River
Posted at 6:24 PM, May 26, 2023

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- Memorial Day officially launches summertime activities for many Virginians, and experts tasked with keeping everyone safe on Virginia waterways say the best time to brush up on best practices is before you get on the water.

A crew with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources provided a ride along boat trip on the James River southeast of Osborne Landing to show common mistakes boaters make on a regular basis. Sadly, fatal boat accidents are nearly a yearly occurrence.

"Memorial Day weekend is our unofficial start to the very busy boating season," said Sgt. Joshua Thomas, who as been with DWR for 13 years. “From 38-foot speedboats to 12-foot kayaks through here, it gets very busy. You know things like the [Varina-Enon] bridge, people want to stop and take pictures of the bridge, create congestion and choke points.”

“There's a 50 foot law for motor boats. When you're passing within 50 feet of another boat, a person in the water, or a fixed object, you have to slow down, and people forget to do that," Sgt. Thomas said.

Showing other vessels, swimmers, and fishermen courtesy happens in the moment. It is important to know your route ahead of time, Thomas said, and responsibly control your speed even if you know where your traveling along a river or lake.

"The rivers change, so a lot of times, if you look at points where trees jut out, you got to remember the contour of that point continues below the surface of the water. You can be several 100 feet away from shore and be in a foot of water. If your boat drafts more than a foot of water, you're in trouble," Thomas said. "You have to remember, boats don't have brakes. So the only way is to go slow and give yourself room to avoid an obstacle if you need to.”

Anyone getting out on a motor boat needs to designate a sober driver ahead of time. Most importantly for everyone on the boat, bringing and wearing a Coast Guard approved life jacket can be a life or death decision.

"80% of boating incidents that result in fatalities are people that don't have like jackets on," Thomas said. "If you hit something at high speed in a boat, you're more than likely going to be ejected from the boat and you at that point you're really going to need that PFD or that life jacket on.”

Kayakers and paddle-boarders of all skill levels will soon flock to the James River in and around Richmond. Mitch Furr, Region 1 Boat Safety Coordinator for DWR, said paddle sports have boomed in the region since the pandemic in particular.

"Really, for this region, one of the biggest things is kind of knowing the area that you're going to be kayaking or stand up paddle-boarding," Furr said.

Like those in motor boats, Furr said anyone paddling or floating the James needs to wear a life jacket and have a way of communicating with someone on shore, since the river can present hazards out of nowhere, regardless of someone's skill level.

"Really there's risk anywhere there's water, but the greatest thing we can suggest is pick areas that have flat water, slower currents, pick the right time of day, and always be mindful to avoid things like large rocks, drains, dams, strainers in the river, which are created by logs and other debris that have been washed down river and become stuck on other objects in the river like rocks that create areas where water flows through but solid objects do not," Furr said.

On the James near Richmond, there is flat water on either side of the fall line, which stretches from Bosher's Dam to Mayo Island and is one of the more dangerous portions. Furr said inexperienced river-goers need to figure out the best spot for them to enjoy the river and check conditions before going out.

"Really the best way to kind of know before you go is to spend time talking to somebody that is an expert on the topic, and make sure they kind of point you in the correct direction," Furr said.

You can find more detailed information onboating and water safety on DWR's website.

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