For decades, signs posted at College Creek have read: “Danger: Strong Rip Tide, Deep Water, Unsafe for Swimming or Wading.” But as one of the few sandy beaches in James City County, it has long been a favorite of local swimmers.
Three people have drowned in College Creek’s waters in the past 15 years. Jamestown High senior Trevor Times, 18, was swimming to a sandbar Monday afternoon when he disappeared under the water. His body was found 35 feet from shore on Tuesday morning.
The popular beach is located just off the Colonial Parkway, with a nearby pull-off serving as the de facto parking lot. It is within sight of private docks at Kingsmill.
A combination of factors makes College Creek dangerous, said John Bull, spokesman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. The current is fast, especially where the creek narrows at a bridge on the Colonial Parkway, and the creek is affected by incoming and outgoing tides. “But the biggest factor is the drop-off,” Bull said. The water is 3-4 feet deep at the shoreline, but quickly drops off to 12 feet. “You can be waist high and then suddenly in way over your head.”
Swimmers like to swim to a sandbar across the creek, but Bull and James City County Police Maj. Steve Rubino both said they often underestimate its distance. “It looks like you could doggy paddle to the sandbar, but the water is running fast,” Bull said. “Even the strongest swimmer can miscalculate.”
In 1997, College of William and Mary senior John Parkinson drowned in the strong current while taking a late-night swim just before leaving for fall break. In 2001, a retired Navy pilot named Glenn Bingham rescued a boy caught in the College Creek current about 40 yards offshore, according to a Daily Press story from June 26, 2001. He was later honored for his actions.
Six years later, five-year-old Hannah Davis was found floating about 30 feet offshore. Officers pulled her from the water and attempted resuscitation, but it was too late.
Rip currents are the leading hazard for all beachgoers, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).
Typically associated with ocean beaches, rip currents form when waves break strongly in some locations and weakly in others, creating narrow, fast-moving belts of water traveling offshore. They typically form at low spots or breaks in sandbars, or near structures, such as bridges and piers.
Rip currents can be identified by a channel of churning, choppy water; notable difference in the water color; a line of foam, seaweed or debris moving seaward; or breaks in the incoming wave patterns.
Rip currents do not pull people under water; rather, they pull people away from the shore. Drowning deaths often occur when people are unable to keep themselves afloat and swim to shore, according to NWS. If caught in a rip current, the weather service recommends swimmers remain calm to conserve energy and not fight the current. Swimmers should swim out of the current parallel to the shoreline and once out of the current, swim towards the shore.
If swimmers cannot swim out of the current, they should float or calmly tread water until out of the current. If they still cannot get near shore, they should wave their arms and yell for help. Bystanders who see someone in trouble should call 9-1-1 and, if possible, throw the victim something that floats and yell instructions on how to escape. Bull recommends bringing a life jacket or floating device (such as a boogie board) on swimming excursions.
The beach has no lifeguards. Although it is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, Colonial National Historical Park spokesman James Perry said the Park Service’s boundary is the land. “We don’t own or control any of the water,” he said. “We can’t create any rules against swimming there. In the river itself, the state would have to create a law or regulation.”
The state’s Division of Legislative Services found no record of any bills drafted to specifically address College Creek.
Perry said the signs serve as the best warning of the rough waters, and said he could remember seeing signs at College Creek about 30 years ago. “The signs were posted roughly when people started going recreationally,” he said. “When the Parkway was built in the 1930s, the pull-offs were designed for people taking the parkway as a tour, maybe stretching their legs. It was not designed for heavy recreational use.”