As summer settles in and temperatures soar, the College Creek beach is a picturesque and serene summer attraction in James City County.
The sandy beach stretches between the Colonial Parkway and historic James River, ending where College Creek joins the James. With trees forming a natural barrier from the road, the beach is private, but popular.
But there is a somber side to the scenic location, one that has caused several drownings in recent years.
Natural features of College Creek – including converging currents from the creek and James River, a sandbar and incoming and outgoing tides – make the area a prime location for rip currents, surf experts say.
Although the National Park Service has jurisdiction over the land at College Creek, they previously told WYDaily they have no ability to force people out of the water.
Dangerous currents have been a part of the beach’s reputation for years. Since 1997, at least five people have drowned in College Creek, according to local news coverage.
Notorious for dangerous waters, drownings
On Monday, 23-year-old Tony Garcia became the most recent victim to get caught in a rip current at College Creek. He was pulled underwater while attempting to swim to a sandbar, and did not resurface.
The church group who Garcia visited the beach with stayed through Monday night and Tuesday, waiting until recovery crews found his body around 4 p.m. Tuesday.
In 1997, College of William and Mary senior John Parkinson drowned in the strong current while taking a late-night swim just before leaving for fall break. In 2001, a retired Navy pilot named Glenn Bingham rescued a boy caught in the College Creek current about 40 yards offshore, according to news coverage at the time.
In 2007, a 5-year-old girl named Hanna Davis drowned while playing in the water during a family outing.
In 2012, an 18-year-old Jamestown High School graduate, Trevor Times, drowned while trying to swim to the same sandbar Garcia was trying to reach Monday.
Last July, Edwin Alexander Tejada Delgado, a 27-year-old James City County resident originally from El Salvador, drowned while swimming about 20 feet offshore.
The science of rip currents
College Creek’s geographical features make it the perfect storm for rip currents.
Off to the side of a main pathway down to the riverbank is a sign that reads “DANGER Strong Rip Tide, Deep Water, Unsafe for Swimming or Wading.” It was put there by the National Park Service, which manages the land.
Rip currents, typically found on beaches, are common in areas with converging currents and tidal areas, such as College Creek, said Wayne Presnell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Marine, Tropical and Tsunami Services Branch. Presnell is an expert in rip currents and surf zones.
Outgoing tides create the strongest rip currents, Presnell said. The currents can form through a combination of several factors, including wind, waves and currents, waves and water levels. Certain permanent structures, such as sandbars, piers or bridges can also help create “unusual” currents.
“It’s a little bit underneath the surface, so that can catch people off guard,” he said.
College Creek is 3 to 4 feet deep at the shoreline, but quickly drops off to 12 feet before reaching the sandbar.
“That’s exactly where a rip current could occur,” Presnell said, adding rip currents often occur around sandbars. “It’s like a funnel – the water is coming through and it’s picking up speed.”
Rip currents can be identified by a channel of churning or choppy water, a notable difference in the water color, a line of foam or debris moving seaward, or breaks in the incoming wave patterns, according to the National Weather Service.
When in doubt if there are dangerous currents present, the best approach is to not go in the water, Presnell said.
“My personal philosophy is the only way you can completely avoid that risk is just not to go in that water,” he said. “And if you do go in, remember the safety advice and tips.”
When caught in a rip current, it is important to stay calm and not panic, Presnell said. Panicking and flailing around can make the situation worse, and the swimmer more tired.
Wearing a lifejacket can also save the lives of those caught in dangerous currents. Without lifeguards present at the beach, the danger of drowning increases, Presnell added.
At lifeguarded beaches, the chances of drowning are 1 in 18 million, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association
James City County Police and the National Park Service were not immediately able to provide updated data on the number of drownings at College Creek Thursday. The National Park Service was not able to give official comment by publication time.
For more tips on how to be safe in rip currents, visit here.
Fearing can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WYDaily archives were used in this article.
Correction: An earlier version of this article called the phenomenon at College Creek rip tides. According to Presnell, rip tides are a “specific type of current associated with the swift movement of tidal water through inlets and the mouths of estuaries, embayments, and harbors.” Rip currents, however, are the events that put people in danger.