Kelsey Bracewell with the American Canoe Association points the Respect the Rapp kiosk featuring important river safety information (Photos courtesy River Rock Outfitter/April Peterson)

When romping in the Rappahannock this summer, go with the flow — safely

by | May 20, 2024 | ALLFFP, Fredericksburg, Outdoors

Nothing beats stepping into the Rappahannock River on a sultry summer day. And nothing ruins that day more than an emergency on the water. 

Water enthusiasts now embrace the month of May as the perfect time to focus on river safety. Friday was Wear Your Life Jacket at Work Day, Saturday kicked off National Safe Boating Week and at two events this month, guests can be fitted for a life vest by members of the Stafford County Fire and Rescue Department at River Rock Outfitters in downtown Fredericksburg.  

Photos courtesy River Rock Outfitter.

Life jackets are the first line of defense in enjoying a day on the water safely. 

“And wear it properly,” added Kelsey Bracewell, director of education, insurance and membership for the American Canoe Association, which is headquartered in Fredericksburg. “If it zips, zip it all the way up. If it buckles, buckle all the buckles. You know, if it cinches down, cinch it all the way down. 

“If it falls off of you or you’re just using it as a cushion, it doesn’t help you. I equate it to riding a bike — you don’t put your helmet on until you’re about to fall and hit your head on the ground. In a car you’ve got a seat belt, but it doesn’t help you once you go through the windshield, you know?” 

Bracewell and River Rock co-owner April Peterson, among others, have been instrumental in bringing river education to the community, hosting events and inspiring river lovers across the area. 

“In response to a particularly tragic drowning incident on the Rappahannock in 2020, I collaborated with some of our community partners to devise a solution,” Peterson said. “Together, we developed the concept of Respect the Rapp, aiming to not only promote existing safety initiatives but also to identify areas where additional support for safety efforts could be provided.” 

The Respect the Rapp campaign brought together the Stafford Swift Water Rescue Team, Stafford County Parks and Recreation, Fredericksburg Police Department, ACA Paddlesports, Friends of the Rappahannock, Fredericksburg, Virginia Main Street, and River Rock Outfitter.

The partnership is responsible for installing the brightly-colored water level gauges and signage that visitors to the river see at Fall Hill Ave., City Dock, Falmouth Beach, Riverside Drive, and elsewhere. The gauges are in street light colors to indicate when the water is safe for recreational use. “So green is safe for all users, yellow is for more experienced, expert paddlers and red indicates the water is not safe for anybody to be out in,” Bracewell said. 

Safety is top of mind for the members of Capt. Jon Hensen’s team. Stafford Fire and Rescue’s Swift Water Rescue Team deploys “Swift Water Rescue Lifeguards” each summer (from Memorial Day to Labor Day) along the river stretch between Riverside Drive and Falmouth Beach. These highly-trained rescue crews sit on boulders in the river and offer on-site rescue services, educate visitors on safety practices, and serve as a visible reminder of the importance of river safety. 

The Swift Water Rescue Team recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management signifying them as a deployable asset that can be used statewide during times of disaster. 

Since the 1980s, over 100 drownings have occurred on the river within the region, Peterson said, and on average there are approximately 50 river rescues annually. That number increases with the number of people utilizing the river each year. 

Along with the message to wear a life vest, the Respect the Rapp campaign urges river-goers to plan ahead whether boating, swimming or fishing. 

A wealth of local resources are available to paddlers and swimmers, Bracewell said. 

There’s Respect the Rapp, the Virginia Outdoor Center, Friends of the Rappahannock, the ACA’s website, River Rock Outfitters. There’s so many different places where you can go and just see what the river level is like today. Friends of the Rappahannock has a river web cam where you can see if the water is high or muddy or full of floating debris and branches.” 

Being weather-aware is also part of the planning process.

“All of us are familiar with the bipolar Virginia weather. Where it’s hot, then it’s cold, it’s sunny, then it’s dumping rain. Part of your plan is knowing when to say, ‘Hey, today’s not the right day for this’,” Bracewell said. 

The ACA offers many free resources on its website, including several new paddling classes. And Peterson recently created this Loom video with safety tips.

Bracewell says that the Rappahannock is a special place. 

The community cares about this place and there’s a reason that they do. And if you haven’t figured out what your reason is yet, go try it out. Go ask around, go learn,” she said. “It’s beautiful, and it’s a perfect combo of something that is right in town and easy to get to but it can feel like you’re miles away from anywhere. If you take the time to float it and just be amongst it appreciating it, that’s a viewpoint that’s hard to find other places.” 

To see more of Peterson’s planning tips, click HERE.

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