ER doctor shares simple steps to stay safe on the water: 'Know before you go'

James River Generic
Posted at 5:05 PM, Jun 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-10 18:16:03-04

RICHMOND, Va. — Adventuring along the James River in Richmond on their paddle boards is a still new hobby for TJ and Alle Owen. On a warm spring Friday in the River City, they were one of hundreds of people out enjoying the beautiful but mighty James.

“I do not want to do like any type of rapids, so for me that gets me out of having to do any type of rapid because paddle board, not a kayak,” Alle said.

“There’s a lot of little nooks and crannies you can got into. You can park yourself on the dry rocks or Belle Isle. There are so many little spots you can go,” TJ said.

TJ and Alle Owen
TJ and Alle Owen

The Owens always pre-map their trips, a move experts said is a key to staying safe while enjoy open water.

“There are some parts that have rapids, there’s some parts that don’t, and there’s drop offs in between. So we usually get on Google, and if we’re going somewhere new, we like to know where those rocks are. They may be there, they may be underwater, but check the map before you go,” TJ said.

“Especially because we’re still new at this, we didn’t want to like try and be all awesome, so we like to go upstream until we’re tired and then float our way back down,” Alle said.

VCU’s Tappahannock Hospital ER Physician Dr. Robert Culley
VCU’s Tappahannock Hospital ER Physician Dr. Robert Culley

Dr. Robert Culley is an ER Physician at VCU’s Tappahannock Hospital and an avid water-lover. Dr. Cully said there are simple steps water-lovers of all abilities can take to stay safe on any body of water.

“This is a river community, so we spend a lot of time out there,” Dr. Culley said. “It sounds cliche but know before you go. Knowing where you’re going to be, the people you’re going to be with, making sure other people know where you’re going to be and where you’re ending up.”

Once someone is actually in the water, seeing obstacles downstream can be difficult, Dr. Culley said. If a person finds themselves in a tough spot, don’t try to move into the current, work with it while trying to get closer to shore, Dr. Culley advised.

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“We were always taught when we went whitewater rafting laying on your back with your feet pointing down river — that way your feet can catch any rocks you may be coming up and hitting,” Dr. Culley said. “In the end, you can still do everything right and still have a bad day. We see it every day in the emergency department. But preventing the things that are avoidable are what we are hoping people can do.”

That’s one reason Dr. Culley recommends always wearing life preservers in open water, staying in large groups, and avoiding alcohol or drugs. If people are drinking, Dr. Culley said designating a “water watcher” to stay sober and keep an eye on others in the group.

FURTHER READING: Dr. Culley did a Q&A with VCU Health recently on water safety in the summertime.

“I think the biggest thing is you see life preservers, so at the minimum we have belts that do that,” TJ Owen said.

James River

The Owens said they respect the power of the James and any body of water. At the same time, they cherish it as a resource, exploring the unique features of the River City, one paddle at a time.

“This feels more adventurous because only so many people can get there. You have to have something that gets you across the water,” TJ said.

“There’s just something cool about it being in the city. Just really chill,” Alle said.

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