River Safety

James River Safety Checklist

Heading out for a float or paddle on the James? Run through this checklist before you go to ensure conditions are safe!

  1. Check the river level. The James River level fluctuates and we will often see higher water levels after it rains in the watersheds upstream of Richmond. A general rule of thumb is if the level is 5ft and below, it is safe to tube.
    • If the water is above 5ft you MUST wear a personal flotation device/life jacket on the river.
  2. Check the weather. Being on the water during a thunderstorm is extremely dangerous. High winds can make it extremely challenging to navigate your boat or float where you want it to go. Avoid going out in windy and stormy conditions.
  3. Know where your put in and take out points are. Check the map for dams and other major hazards along your route.
    • Have a back up plan. If your group misses the planned upon take out location, make sure you know where the next one is and if it is safe for you all to get there. If it is not safe, get off the river and onto shore immediately and walk.

Basic River Safety

  • Wear a personal flotation device/life jacket!
  • Do not float or boat alone. Make sure someone not coming on the river knows your plans. Stay together on the river or use a buddy system so you don’t accidentally lose someone.
  • Never stand up in moving current. Foot entrapments are common and very dangerous — avoid this by only putting your feet down in eddies or slow moving, shallow water.
  • AVOID DAMS! Boshers dam and Z-dam are both extremely dangerous and have taken many lives. Make sure you know where these are and if you are on the section of river that these dams are give yourself plenty of time to get to shore to portage around the dams.
    • If you end up caught in the dam recirculating underwater, attempt to swim down toward the bottom or to side — this gives you a chance of being pushed out with the undercurrent.
  • Avoid strainers. A strainer is any obstacle or object in the water that the river current pushes into. On the James, this means avoid logs and debris pile ups on bridge pilings.
    • If you are in the water and cannot swim away from a strainer in time, swim downstream toward the strainer and use your hands to push up and over the obstacle.
  • Avoid undercut rocks or riverbanks.
  • Avoid having things tethered to you or hanging off of you. Anything that can snag on to an obstacle or your boat/float can be very hazardous.
  • Wear shoes — closed toe shoes are ideal. Going barefoot is dangerous on the James. Glass, rebar, fish hooks, rocks, and other potentially day ruining sharp things are on shore and underwater.
  • If you fall out of your boat/float mid-rapid and cannot actively swim to safety, float “nose to toes” with your feet at the surface facing downstream and your head upstream so that your feet take any impacts with rocks or other obstacles.

Go with experienced folks

Reach out to the river community if you aren’t sure about something. The James River is home to a welcoming and knowledgeable whitewater paddling community — do not hesitate to ask questions if you have safety concerns. Go out with commercial trips to learn more about the river and better understand the dangers.

Respect the river at all times

The river is stronger than it looks.

Leave no trace

The James River is a precious resource to our city — take care of it and take care of yourself.