Hollywood Rapid can be a dangerous to the uninitiated. Credit Elli Morris
With the world coming to Richmond — i.e. tons of tourists descending on our fair city for the impending bike races — the James River will be a big draw. It’s an incredible resource right in the center of all the action. Will visitors be aware of the dangers that accompany the river? Let’s make sure they do.
Having been involved in a few river rescues lately, this article is primarily aimed at locals, people that know the river but might not know how much they don’t know. But the information should be good for all those out-of-towners who want to go experience the mighty James as well.
Each rescue I saw involved someone new to the river. This isn’t too surprising given the enormous amount of diversity, from flat water to rapids to tidal areas, with a changing river bed from spot to spot where it’s rocky, sandy, shallow, or deep enough to jump off bridge embankments. Additionally, the water levels can change from day to day, which has a major impact on river conditions. Those variables are partially what make the Fall Line so amazing and such fun, but also treacherous.
Swiftwater rescue team in training. Credit Elli Morris
However, each rescue victim was accompanied by a Richmond local. Locals that obviously didn’t think they were being reckless and negligent yet clearly put their friends and family in danger.
Being able to safely swim the river, particularly in the downtown rapids, involves quite a few skills, ones that might be so intuitive as to be forgotten in one’s spiel about how to be safe. For example, swimming across the current above Hollywood Rapid can be done, but as a frequent river person you might not even be aware you are using eddies, reading the lines, looking out for obstacles. Telling someone to “keep your feet up” is accurate and necessary advice. But it isn’t going to keep them from being swept down through Hollywood Rapid. It isn’t enough information for them to stop being churned around in “God’s Hole,” or being pushing into the “Washing Machine,” and it isn’t going to help them figure out how to get behind a rock to get out of the current.
Saying your husband and son swim above the rapids all the time doesn’t mean it’s OK to let a 12-year-old swim unsupervised and unaware of impending rapids. Before anyone swims in the river, they must become aware of what’s in the current, what’s down-river, how to get out of the current, and what might happen should each escape goal be missed.
Richmond’s swiftwater rescue team enters the water near Pipeline rapid. Credit: Elli Morris
Wearing a PFD (Personal Floatation Device or life jacket) is always a good idea. Using one in a whitewater kayak or canoe is mandatory. Especially when taking new lines with people who aren’t boaters. Not taking such risks, particularly with newbies, ought to be basic knowledge. The City of Richmond law mandates a PFD be used when the river is above 5 feet. Above 9 feet a permit is required to be on the water. Safe river levels generally fall between 3.5 to 5 feet. However, each location in the river is dynamic, wild, and changing, so learn to be wise about where you swim, boat, or float.
Remember, being a “good swimmer” is not the same as being safe on the river. Don’t get carried away with wanting to take visitors to your favorite spots. Take them to a safe, easy location, where they will have fun. Because getting carried away in a river rescue raft is not what anyone should experience as their first introduction to the James.
Use these resources for more information on how to safely enjoy the James River:
*The James River water level can be found on the RichmondOutside.com home page (top left corner)
*James River Park
*James River Association River Watch