Memorial Day weekend is behind us, which means, for all intents and purposes, it’s summertime. And nothing says summertime quite like spending time on the water—floating the river, exploring a local lake, and/or fishing. But as harmless as the water seems in the warm sun of summer, there are very real dangers associated with boating. Nothing puts a damper on a day of adventure like an accident that could have been prevented. So, as a primer for summer, consider these tips for keeping your outings safe and enjoyable.

Check the Weather, Plan for the Worst

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

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

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 the Boozing

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—just like driving a car. 

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 River Hazards and Conditions

It’s easy to underestimate the amount of time required for a float. I’ve done it many times, particularly on an unfamiliar float, where judging location relative to the take-out is difficult. 

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 paddling.  If you plan to fish, double that time.  Current speed should also be taken into consideration. An eight-mile float on a fast-paced river, like the South Fork of the Shenandoah, will go by much faster than on a slow, meandering river, like the James below New Canton.

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. Use satellite imaging, if available, to scout floats from home, taking note of such hazards, and planning possible paths around them. If you’re unsure of the best approach when floating up on a hazard, beach your craft and scout the run from the bank.   

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.

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