Wednesday, May 20, 2015


As of this week, I am officially released from the grip of school.  Summer is officially here, and if you’re anything like me, your soul craves nothing more than river mud- and sand-crusted feet, a timeless journey down a coursing river, and tangling with the resolute will of a river smallmouth.  So, in honor of National Safe Boating Week and everything that summer is, I’ve put together a short list of tips—a refresher—for keeping your float trips safe and enjoyable.

The iconic Massanutten Mountain from Low Water Bridge on the Shenandoah River.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

Check the Weather, Plan for the Worst

    Three years ago I was floating a short piece of the upper South Fork Rivanna River with my brother after work.  It was a last minute plan.  We were just going to be out for a few hours.  The skies were bluebird.  We didn’t even glance at the forecast.

    In this case, what we didn’t know bit us—hard.  We had paddled about a mile upstream and were just about to stop and begin to fish on our float back when an audible roar started to grow in the air.  I rounded a bend in the river to see--like black and white—dark, roiling storm clouds pushing back quickly on a bright sky that had previously seemed unconquerable.  As fast as we could paddle back wasn’t fast enough.  The storm overtook us in a matter of minutes, bringing branches tumbling haphazardly into the water along our path.  We made it back to the truck unscathed, albeit soaked, frightened, and humbled.  Read about that encounter HERE.

    The moral of the story?  Check the weather—always.  Summer is characterized by late-afternoon low pressure systems caused by warming air over land.  Know that, and plan and pack accordingly.

Limit Alcohol Consumption

    A study conducted in four southeastern states concluded that alcohol is a contributing factor in about 51 percent of motorboat fatalities in those states.  If your summertime boating activities involve operating a motorboat, understand that it requires dexterity, awareness of boating traffic, and the ability to make and execute quick decisions. 

    Alcohol also increases the danger of drowning by decreasing one’s ability to swim by reducing their ability to hold one’s breath and by disorientation. 

    Moreover, alcohol should not be utilized as a source of hydration, as its consumption can lead to dehydration.  Alcohol limits the body’s production of an anti-diuretic hormone, which reduces the body’s ability to absorb water.  Putting your body in this situation while on the water, in the sun, is not a healthy choice, and can lead to minor dehydration or a more serious illness.

Know Your Course and River Conditions

    It’s easy to underestimate the amount of time required for a particular float.  I have listened to many a story from people who fallaciously equated the length of the paralleling road to the length of their intended float, or otherwise bit off more than they could chew in a day and ended up on the river much after dark, to ever consciously make that mistake. 

    If you plan to tackle a new stretch of river, do your research.  Know its length in terms of river miles.  On average, eight to 10 miles makes for about four to six hours of relaxed floating.  If you plan to fish, cut that time in half.  Current speed should also be taken into consideration.  An eight-mile float on a fast-paced river will go by much faster than on a slow, meandering river.

    Similarly, it pays to do research on the water type present along the stretch you intend to float.  For instance, the Shenandoah River is a river of many ledges and a few rapids, namely Compton’s Rapids, while the Rivanna River has little in the way of sharp ledges in its lower reaches.  Know these character traits so that you can be on the lookout for them and know how to handle such obstacles when they are encountered. 

    Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, always check streamflow levels before floating a river.  The US Geological Survey maintains a detailed, real-time set of tables fed by river gauges across the country that serve as an invaluable resource for river-goers and fishermen alike.  Utilize that resource to avoid the stretches of slow, flat water where you might have to drag your craft during low water; the tight rapids that will be more dangerous during high water events; and to know when to stay home when the water is at flood stage or a remarkable low.

     Keep these tips in mind while planning and enjoying your times on the water this summer.  Nothing puts a hamper on a great day on the water with friends like an accident, and most can be easily avoided with forethought.

    See you on the water!

 *Originally published in the Rural Virginian

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