Saturday, September 23, 2023

‘We take it personal’: VDGIF still searching daily for missing boaters on James River

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and Virginia State Police continue the search for missing boaters Thursday morning. (Photo courtesy of Virginia State Police.)
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and Virginia State Police continued the search for missing boaters Jan. 4. (Photo courtesy/Virginia State Police.)

It’s been two months since two boaters went missing on the James River during a snowstorm, but Capt. Milt Robinson is not giving up.

It’s a daily routine for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Conservation Police: Whether officers are in the woods, on a boat, or walking the shoreline, they are looking for Kyle Englehart, 29, and Austin Savage, 20.

Although the search is now being labeled as a “recovery” mission, Robinson and his officers are still using side scan sonar to see under the river’s surface and monitoring changing winds and tides.

“We take it personal. It’s something you just can’t get used to,” Robinson said.

Robinson is the VDGIF’s Region I manager, patrolling areas including metro Richmond, Hampton Roads, Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula, Eastern Shore, and southeast Virginia.

Until the men are found, state conservation police officers also have help: Authorities from other jurisdictions — including the National Park Service, Surry County Sheriff’s Office James City County Police — are also searching.

“We don’t set a date when we stop,” the captain added.

A dire combination

The night the men went missing was the perfect storm, Robinson said.

Englehart and Savage, who are from Charles City County and Henrico County, respectively, went out on the river Jan. 3 in a 16-foot Jon boat to work on a waterfowl blind they had near Grays Creek in Surry County.

The men disappeared late that night as a snowstorm hit eastern Virginia, dropping five to ten inches of snow and creating two-foot waves on the James. The storm was accompanied by below-freezing temperatures.

Savage and Englehart were both reported missing the following afternoon.

During the initial search Jan. 4 and 5, rescue crews found the 16-foot boat washed up on Hog Island, according to Petty Officer 3rd Class Corinne Zilnicki, spokeswoman for the U.S. Coast Guard.

Freezing temperatures forced officials to call off the search Jan. 5 after ice formed on the river.

VDGIF Conservation police officer Dan Smith stands on the edge of the frozen James River while searching for two missing boaters. (Courtesy photo/Capt. Milt Robertson)
VDGIF Conservation police officer Dan Smith stands on the edge of the frozen James River while searching for two missing boaters. (Courtesy photo/Capt. Milt Robertson)

The Virginia State Police and VDGIF resumed the search Jan. 6. Since then, there has been no sign of the men.

“The weather really kicked us in the butt here,” Robinson said.

Innumerable resources

The search since Savage and Englehart disappeared has been extensive.

The VDGIF took the lead on the search because the incident is boating-related, Robinson said.

To date, more than two dozen local, state and federal agencies have helped search for the men.

“The agencies together have utilized maritime and aviation support to cover over 45 nautical miles of water on the James River & tributaries and an additional 15 miles of adjacent shorelines in James City Co., Surry Co., Isle of Wight Co., Fort Eustis and Newport News by foot and vehicle patrols during the period of January 4th until February 28, 2018,” Robinson wrote in an email.

Numerous resources have also been used to find the men, including side scan sonar, dive teams, patrol boats, air drones, helicopters, airplanes, cadaver K9s, tracking K9s, shoreline vehicles and foot patrols.

Robinson believes the primary search area is in the triangle formed between where the boat washed ashore on Hog Island, the Jamestown Yacht Basin where they started the trip, and the duck blind near Grays Creek.

Virginia Conservation Police and James City County public safety personnel have responded to possible sightings of bodies in the water over the last two months, but all reports were unfounded.

“We’ve been telling fishermen to be on the lookout and call us or 911 if they see anything,” Robinson said.

A crane breaks the ice so search boats can access the James River during a deep freeze in early January. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is still searching for two men who went missing during a snowstorm Jan. 3. (Courtesy video/Capt. Milt Robinson)

One is too many

In the last year, there have been multiple water-related accidents, including deaths, on the James River between Richmond and the Chesapeake Bay.

The accidents have involved overturned kayaks in rapids in Richmond, swimming accidents and more.

In June, 23-year-old Tony Jimenez Garcia of Chesterfield went missing while swimming out to a sandbar at College Creek. His body was found the following day.

Despite the fact boating accidents happen “pretty regularly,” Robinson said each case is taken personally.

“I think one or two a year is still too many,” Robinson said.

Local, state and federal agencies involved in the search for missing boaters:

Local agencies:

  • Prince George Police Department
  • James City Police Department
  • James City Fire Department
  • Newport News Public Safety Departments
  • Surry County Sheriff Department
  • Surry County Emergency Services
  • Surry County Animal Control
  • Surry Power Plant
  • Sussex County Public Safety
  • York-Poquoson Sheriff Department
  • York-Poquoson Fire Department
  • Virginia Beach Public Safety

State agencies:

  • Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries-Conservation Police and Support Personnel
  • Virginia State Police- Aviation Unit
  • Virginia State Police- Dive Team
  • Virginia Department of Emergency Management
  • Virginia Department of Transportation- Surry County Office
  • Virginia Department of Transportation-Jamestown-Scotland Ferry
  • Virginia Marine Resources Commission
  • Virginia Port Authority- Incident Command Center
  • Virginia State Parks- Chippokes

Federal agencies:

  • Fort Eustis
  • James River Reserve Fleet
  • US Coast Guard- Hampton Roads
  • US Park Services- Jamestown

Private businesses and individuals:

  • Dominion Energy- Surry Power Plant
  • Virginia Search and Rescue Dog Association
  • Surry Seafood Factory Restaurant
  • Local Residents in Surry and James City County
  • Local recreational and commercial boaters
  • Family and friends of the missing boaters

WYDaily archives were used in this story.

Contact the reporter at

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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