The Greater Richmond Sailing Association offers youth sailing camps in the summer. Photo courtesy Greater Richmond Sailing Association
That muted-green ribbon of water that flows through the middle of our region? At some point, if it hasn't already, the James River is going to call your name.
It's the defining feature of our regional identity, so much so that, last year, the readers of Outside magazine voted Richmond the "Best River Town in America." So when you hear the water calling you, here are some of the ways you can answer.
How about joining a rowing club? The Virginia Boat Club ( virginiaboatclub.org ) operates out of Rocketts Landing and Robious Landing Park, while aspiring scullers in grades 8 to 12 can check out River City Crew ( rivercitycrew.com ).
"We're for students who don't have a home high school team," says Tom O'Rourke, executive director and head coach of River City Crew, which rows at Robious Landing Park. Throughout the year, there are a number of scholastic regattas, including the James River Regatta on April 13.
If you prefer a more whimsical but still intense experience on the water, the Richmond International Dragon Boat Festival (285-9495 or sportsbackers.org ) might be a better fit. Every year, teams race in 40-foot canoes decorated with the head and tail of a Chinese dragon. Each team has at least 20 rowers, one steersperson and a drummer to synchronize strokes. The course is 500 meters long, and the festival takes place at Rocketts Landing. This year's event is on Aug. 10, and it will have an Asian culture festival accompanying it.
For those who prefer a solo experience, take an instructional course through Chesterfield County Parks and Recreation (748-1623 or chesterfield.gov/parks ).
"We've been providing the meat of paddling instruction to the Richmond area … for about 30 years," says Greg Velzy, director of paddle-sports instruction for the county parks. The county teaches 1,000 people a year about kayaking and standup paddleboarding. The classes, which run April through October, teach beginners and experts alike about the ways of the river, with single- and multiple-day programs that attract paddlers from around the state.
"It works out so much better for people if they take just one class first," Velzy says. "It really is paramount that people get the very basics of safety."
Paddlers also can hone their whitewater-kayaking skills through Adventure Challenge (276-7600 or adventurechallenge.com ). Instructors certified by the American Canoe Association will guide you along the James from calmer waters to rougher rapids. Owner Buzz Kraft says, "A big concern of beginners is, ‘What happens if the boat flips?' So we focus on that first." In addition, participants will learn strokes, turns, river safety, how to read river features and more.
For those looking for a group experience, River City Rafting (232-RAFT or rivercityraft.com ) offers guided whitewater rafting, tubing and inflatable kayak trips for all skill levels. Among a variety of options, "The River Trip" is a good fit for families and first-timers ages 9 and up — the ride stays in the upper section of the James with calmer rapids. " ‘The City Trip' is for anyone who is 12 years old or more who wants a thrill," says rafting company co-owner Travis Bayes. Participants traverse the lower section of the James featuring more intense rapids.
Riverside Outfitters (560-0068 or riversideoutfitters.net ) is another company offering guided rafting and kayking, as well as paddleboarding and canoeing.
Anglers can take advantage of tours from Discover the James (938-2350 or discoverthejames.com ) that target catfish, shad and sunfish depending on the time of year. The tours, which take place aboard the 24-foot pontoon boat Discovery Barge II, embark from Richmond Yacht Basin in Varina.
"It really is an excellent classroom for fishing," says Discover the James owner Mike Ostrander. "It's open to all experience levels."
Away from the James, if you get the bug for being on open water with some wind-assisted motion, then the Greater Richmond Sailing Association ( grsa.org ) will welcome you aboard. Anchored at Chesterfield County's Swift Creek Mill Reservoir, the club has more than 200 members, an active racing season and sailing lessons for youth and adults, primarily in June and July. Commodore Mills Jones says the lake offers one of best nature views around, adding, "We tend to say it's the best-kept secret in Chesterfield County."