As the weather turns colder, boaters should be wary of unseen dangers in the water.
“Winter can be treacherous,” said Capt. Milt Robinson, conservation police manager for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “If you fall in that water, it could just take a second for you to go into shock.”
After two boaters went missing on the James River during a winter storm in January 2017, VDGIF and other departments spent months searching until two bodies were found. Robinson believes that the pair went out on the river during the night and were unaware of the impending storm.
“I had never seen the river just frozen like that,” Robinson said. “It was the worst I’d seen in my 22 years.”
During the search, Robinson said there were times when there was 60 personnel from 14 different agencies working to find the missing boaters. The agencies used resources like drones and helicopters to try and get better views of the areas but even with all that help, officials had a hard time locating the missing boaters partially because of the winter weather.
“With the tide, it’s like starting over every eight hours,” Robinson said. “Plus the melting snow and ice. The area was constantly changing.”
But just because it is cold outside doesn’t mean boaters should steer clear of the water entirely. Robinson said preparation is the most important variable between a safe experience and a life-threatening one.
The first step is to always wear a life vest, even if you don’t plan on being out in the water for long or if you think you can swim well. During the winter, a tumble into the water is an entirely different situation than during warmer seasons.
Jamie Brunkow, James River Keeper for the James River Association, said the water temperature is the main reason the association doesn’t take guided excursions during the winter.
“If I flip in July, that’s a fun learning experience,” he said. “But if I end up in the water in the middle of February it’s a different story. You have to know what you’re getting into and be aware that hypothermia is a very real, and quick, threat.”
Brunkow advised boaters to avoid wearing fabrics like cotton, which will soak up the water. This can be dangerous even outside the water, he said, because cotton will absorb sweat which can put a person at risk of hypothermia as well, especially out on a river where there is no shield from cold winds.
In addition, Robinson suggested boaters bring certain safety items such as a cellphone or flares. He said the difference between being lost and being discovered can be the extra precaution of proper lighting on a boat.
But one of the most important preparations stressed by both Brunkow and Robinson is for boaters to check the local weather forecast before going out on the water. Unlike a summer storm which can delay a search for a few hours, a winter storm can create complications that extend a search over months.
“It’s may seem rare for something like that to happen but our motto is be prepared for the worst,” Brunkow said. “You’re playing at a higher risk if you choose to go out on the water in the winter.”
Editors note: This story was originally published in December 2018.