JAMES CITY COUNTY — As the country reopens, beaches are expected to be more packed this Memorial Day weekend.
With an anticipated increase in the number of guests visiting local beaches, the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry crew is emphasizing the importance of water and safety.
In June 2019, the Jamestown-Scotland ferry crew rescued three teenagers struggling in the James River.
The ferry service crew members that were involved in the rescue were awarded the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) 2020 Commissioner’s Award for Life-Saving Response for saving the teenagers’ lives.
Rescuing swimmers in the area near the ferry has become more prevalent as people attempt to go further into the river than what is considered safe.
Last month, the James City County (JCC) Marine Patrol had to halt traffic from boarding a ferry due to an in-water rescue involving a windsurfer who was reported as being caught in the wind and waves.
Director George “Wes” Ripley has been with the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry for over 33 years and has seen his fair share of rescues.
However, he says that the last couple of years has had an increased number of rescues for swimmers that have tried to swim out to the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) range light near the end of the Jamestown pier.
The range light is approximately 2,000 feet off the beach and appears closer to swimmers than it really is, Ripley said.
“People start swimming out there and they don’t realize how strong the current is and it either sweeps them down toward our peer, or worse, it sweeps them upriver where there’s nothing to grab onto,” he said.
When this happens, the ferry crew has to launch rescue boats to help the swimmers, effectively halting the ferry service. Ripley said that the crew is not big enough to run both the rescue and the ferry service at the same time.
“When we do that, it puts our people at risk, plus the swimmers put themselves at risk,” Ripley said.“
Ripley noted that it also inconveniences all of the motorists that are trying to catch the ferry.
While some swimmers actually make it to the range light, the challenge of fighting the current leaves many fatigued and disoriented.
“We had somebody comment while we rescued them, ‘I swim fine in my pool.’ Well, your pool is 30 feet long,” Ripley said.
When the ferry rescue team is alerted of struggling swimmers, they will take out their rescue boats as soon as possible.
However, if the crew is in the middle of the ferry’s run, it could take up to 10 minutes to get to the dock, during which time, swimmers would still be struggling to stay afloat.
With the Memorial Day holiday coming up, Ripley asks that folks heading to the beach to keep water safety in mind and not to swim beyond their ability.
“We’ll do what we can, but starting Memorial Day weekend, we start running three boats on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, so there will be a little bit of an increase in ferry service,” he said.
Ripley also urges kayakers and canoers to avoid getting in the direct path of the ferries, as they are difficult to maneuver or stop once they start moving.
As for what swimmers should do if they find themselves struggling after swimming out too far?
“There really is no good advice, except don’t do it,” Ripley said. “You’re not only endangering yourself, but you’re putting our crew in danger.”
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