Local boaters raise concerns about safety near entrance to James City Marina

Staff writer

Some local boaters will tell you getting into James City County Marina via Sandy Bay can be tricky.

After passing through the “hole in the wall” — a name given to the passage underneath the Colonial Parkway bridge that connects Jamestown Island to the mainland -- a boater comes to Sandy Bay on the way to the marina.

At high tide, the bay is a seemingly flat expanse of water. Underneath that flat expanse of water is a shoal in the middle of the bay, which juts out of the surface during low tide.

That, along with another shoal on the west end of the bay, is a source of anxiety for some local boaters. They know the shoals are there, but visitors don’t. And there isn’t much in the way of warning signs about those hazards, by Craig Metcalfe’s reckoning.

“You got to do something to warn people about what’s over here. There’s low shoals here, that means they’re going to run aground,” said Metcalfe, standing on a rise along the Colonial Parkway overlooking the bay in October. “If you don’t know it’s there, you’re going to get hurt.”

Metcalfe has lived in James City’s Landfall neighborhood for more than a decade. He’s a recreational boater and, like some of his neighbors, has a dock on a creek that flows past the marina into Sandy Bay. He’s pretty familiar with the bay and knows what to avoid to steer clear of the bay’s shoals.

It’s a different story for new boaters, and since the county wants to improve the James City County Marina and surrounding area in the near future, Metcalfe thinks it’s likely there will be an uptick in new boaters traveling Sandy Bay to get to the marina’s amenities.

The county intends to revamp the existing boating facilities at the marina with millions of dollars in improvements. County officials also hope the existing brewery at the site will be joined by other businesses, like a restaurant, in the future.

Currently, the shoal in the middle of the bay is marked with several small poles. There’s also a warning sign near the entrance to the marina, but that’s too far from the entrance into Sandy Bay from the James River to be any use to boaters navigating around the bay’s hazards, Metcalfe said.

Parks and Recreation Director John Carnifax said marking hazards in Sandy Bay falls outside James City’s ability or responsibility to address. The bay isn’t owned by the county.

“The county’s position is that it’s not the county’s responsibility and we don’t have the authority to regulate waterways,” Carnifax said. “It’s a complicated issue.”

Boaters are supposed to be licensed and be up to date on charts. They have a responsibility to know the waterways they intend to travel and therefore have to be aware of the risks in Sandy Bay and elsewhere, Carnifax said.

When asked whether the shoals pose a hurdle to people who try to access the marina once it has the allure of new facilities and amenities, Carnifax pointed out the marina has existed for years in the same location and they haven’t been a substantial hurdle yet. James City hasn’t done anything in the ways of erecting new signage since acquiring the marina.

And recently, the area hasn’t seen many reported accidents.

In the last five years, there have been two reportable boat incidents in the James City County area of the James River, and only one reportable incident in Sandy Bay, according to Stacey Brown, the boating safety program manager at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. A reportable accident is one in which there are damages more than $2,000, a person suffers injuries that are beyond the scope of first aid or if a person is killed or is reported missing, Brown said in an email.

The Sandy Bay incident involved a swimmer getting hit by a jet ski last summer. The swimmer had to get stitches, Brown said.

Metcalfe isn’t alone in his concern.

Around 50 boaters signed onto a petition he delivered to Coast Guard officials in early October. The petition, signed by James City and Surry boat owners and citizens, requests “better signage be installed by the U.S. Coast Guard for boaters’ safety in the Powhatan Creek waterway, specifically to avoid the shoals at Sandy Bay.”

Craig also sent a letter to James City Director of Economic Development Amy Jordan, stating his concern about the safety of boaters entering and leading the marina. She referred a Virginia Gazette inquiry about Sandy Bay to Carnifax.

Among local boaters who support the petition is Wilber Jordan, a marine contractor who’s been boating on local waters for around 27 years.

Jordan echoed Metcalfe’s concerns, saying that he recalls a boat getting stranded on the sandbar last summer.

“It really needs channel makers back there,” he said. “Even people familiar with the area can be kind of uncomfortable.”

Though marking the dangers would be an improvement, the effectiveness is diluted by the fact that there are plenty of boaters out there who don’t know what they’re doing on the water, Jordan said.

“Half of people don’t know what side of a marker to be on,” he said.

Terry Deaver has lived on Powhatan Creek for about a decade, and agreed the shoals are a problem.

“If you’re not familiar with the area, you’re probably going to run aground,” Deaver said, thought he also said he can’t recall a time he’s personally seen a boat run aground.

Whether it’s high tide or low tide, the shoal poses an obstacle. In a perfect world, someone would dredge and mark a channel through the bay, Deaver said.

The Coast Guard did have two channel buoys marking the area, but removed them in late fall 2017. The sediment built up to such an extent that it was no longer considered a channel and thus no longer the Coast Guard’s responsibility to mark and monitor.

“The water depth in this area, over time, has progressively become more shallow and shoaled to a point that the floating aids were sitting on the sea floor, no longer marking ‘safe’ water for navigation,” said Coast Guard official Joey Bucciero in an email. “This is why we disestablished the two floating aids.”

“The Coast Guard is not responsible for dredging waterways. Our role is to establish, monitor and maintain aids to navigation for government, commerce and safety purposes where practical, when possible,” Bucciero said.

Ideally, Metcalfe would like to see at least five large signs marking a path away from the hazards in Sandy Bay that leads into and out of the marina. Metcalfe said that if no government entity takes charge, he plans to try to address the problem himself.

“I will be willing to obtain signage and post with financial support from the boating (community) or community at large,” he said.

Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.

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