Tips for staying safe on the James River

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The James River is a great source of recreation for all of Central Virginia, but not knowing the water levels can get you into a dangerous situation – maybe a water rescue, or even worse.

Captain Taylor Goodman of the Henrico Fire Department spoke with 8News about the potential hazards of the river at high levels.

CD39B8F39DC54151A7158D9D131208E1“What happens a lot of time, we will get rain and floods that occur very far in the western part of the state. The dangerous part of that is that sometimes those rains are occurring 2 to 3 days before here,” Goodman said. “In fact, we might not even get any rain here, but the next thing you know all of those flood waters are making their way down.

“And then you get folks out on the water, either recreationally, either out on a boat or, for example, they are here in a recreational park and they are caught without warning in rising waters.”

When you are enjoying your day on the James River, whether it is just lying on the rocks or using a canoe or a kayak, it is important to remember safety first and always have a life vest or personal flotation device (PFD). It is not enough to just have it with you, though. It is important to actually wear it.

“Children can drown in as little as 20 seconds and adults in 60 seconds,” Goodman said.


Goodman said that most water rescues involve boats getting too close to rocks or other objects on the water.

“When it comes to boating, a lot of that is kayaks, canoes, and things like that … perhaps even a personal watercraft,” he said. “They could get too close to a dam or to the rocks or things like that where either the boat can become disabled, they could overturn or lose the boat. Hopefully, they have a flotation device on that will keep them above water.”

Many others do not realize the amount of energy that is used swimming out to your favorite rock on the James. Oftentimes, people get stuck out in the river later in the day when they are more tired and realize they have to swim back.

Henrico Fire and Rescue, as well as other local agencies, constantly practice water rescues to keep their skills sharp. They work on throwing lines to save people who are caught in the current. They also go out into the faster water to understand the hydraulic eddies and currents that cause a person to succumb to the water and need to be rescued.

Goodman cautioned that people should remember that when the James is over 5 feet, they are required to have a life vest. When the James is over 9 feet, a special permit is required to be on the James and greater than 12 feet is flood stage and it is considered way too dangerous for anyone to be on the river.

James River Actions Levels

  • 5 Feet Life vest or PFD required
  • 9 Feet Special Permit Needed
  • 12 Feet Flood Stage

“PFDs for a long time have been big bulky and uncomfortable and that has kept people from putting them on,” Goodman said. “That has completely changed. [PFD’s] are much more slim and lightweight and there are some that can be worn like a jacket and they inflate when you fall in. So it is even more comfortable.”

Be smart, be safe and enjoy your day on the James River.

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