A friend took me sailing the other day for several hours, my the first time on the James River. The river is 4 to 6 miles wide where we were, near Smithfield. While commercial shipping – barges, container ships, military vessels – can reach Richmond, about 50 miles upstream, much of the water-covered expanse is too shallow for sailboats, so you have to stay close to navigational channels. Small motor boats are not limited by big keels so local explorers and fishermen prefer them. That’s what you see tied up to and on boat lifts at private piers for homes along the river. A goodly number of sailboats can be found at numerous marinas in the area including those around the James River along with larger motor boats.
We were the only sail boat this day, which is about normal, despite a pleasant temperature, dry weather, but a good breeze, 26 knots, whatever that is. Only about two motor boats were out, too, perhaps because of the wind. However, I live on the river and only see oyster and crab boats on a regular basis, up to 25 in the morning at season height.
My friend remarked that there’s never very many pleasure craft, motor, sail or otherwise (kayaks) when he’s out. So if you like boating for pleasure and don’t like doing it under crowded conditions, this is the place to settle. Also, since many boats are around, a good variety of new and used are available, as well as marine service centers. In fact marinas are one place to look for handyman specials because some folks don’t use and maintain the boat they park there, then fail to pay the storage fees and the boats are abandoned.
While all sorts of water craft are used on the river, such as the kayaks, it’s not a place for the inexperienced boater to learn by trial and error. My sailing friend noted that experienced sailers feel the river is more difficult to sail than the ocean because the wind is affected by the shape of nearby terrain. It’s more variable. Periodically even an experienced water person, but not one familiar with our area, takes a small craft out of a calm mooring area into vicious weather beyond the shelter and drowns. The day I sailed we had air temperature of 72 degrees and water temperature of 50 degrees. If you fell in, you could survive for about 15 minutes. Water chills the body 25 times faster than air and thrashing around in water makes it cool even faster.
Hurricanes in our area have washed amazing amounts of debris into the river. Entire houses, piers, and boats have disappeared along with many whole trees. The only thing that washes ashore in any quantity is wood from dismantled piers — planks, pilings, railings, sections of stairways and little things like soda bottles and Styrofoam containers. The rest, the propane bottles, wheelbarrows, roofs, walls, trees, bicycles, barbecue grills, chairs, play sets, fences, and the contents of a few demolished homes are scattered about the river bottom somewhere. Yet one never hears a news report of anyone encountering debris while water skiing, swimming, jet skiing, boating or fishing. The exception might be broken glass encountered along the shore.