Special Report: Treacherous Waters

JAMES CITY COUNTY, Va. (WAVY) — 10 On Your Side is taking an up-close look at a dangerous stretch of water we’ve reported on too many times: College Creek.

Too many lives have been taken by the currents of College Creek, which feeds into the James River. Located in James City County off the Colonial Parkway, the creek has claimed the lives of five people who have drowned since 1997.

It seems like a simple swim — 100 to 150 yards at the shortest distance from beach to sandbar, but underneath there is a treacherous deception.

Last month on June 26, 2017, Tony Garcia drowned trying to swim to the sandbar.

Crews recover body of swimmer who went missing in College Creek

“The sandbar is nothing. Everybody [swims to it]. Everybody does it all the time,” Mariah Sutton said back in May 2012 as she mourned the drowning of her friend Trevor Times.

Times died on May 28, 2012. His friends called him the next Tiger Woods.

Edwin Tajada Delgado tried the swim to it, but he drowned as well on July 7, 2016.

The first to drown since 1997 on the way to the sandbar was John Parkinson. He died on October 10, 1997.

Parkinson was a senior at the College of William & Mary, and 10 On Your Side had interviewed him in February of 1997 concerning hazing at college fraternities.  An administrator at the time said, “The one thing we do know — he was in a pretty strong current.”

Finally on July 19, 2007, five-year-old Hannah Davis drowned. She was stepping five feet into the water when she fell into a sharp drop, which is typical of the beach area at College Creek.

The National Park Service has posted a sign at the entrance to the beach and it reads, “DANGER. Strong Rip Tide, Deep Water, Unsafe for Swimming or Wading.”

James City County police are the first responders to drownings at College Creek.

“It’s kind of the perfect storm here. You have a culmination of factors,” said police spokesperson Stephanie Williams.

Those factors include the swift incoming rip tide current that cuts across the sandbar. There is also a narrow creek opening under a bridge near the beach, which becomes a funnel, and the water races faster as it moves towards the creek.

Galina and Sergey, who did not want to give their last names, said the current was taking them quickly down the beach.

“People are trying to go against the current. It’s pretty hard sometimes,” Sergey said.

10 On Your Side’s Andy Fox put on a life jacket and shoes — because it is clearly unsafe to swim to the sandbar as the tide is coming in and it’s not clear enough to tell what is on the bottom of the river.

Andy immediately hit the deep fall off as he entered the water. You feel the tide and the current coming in. Mother Nature’s rip tide beats up on you, and wears you down. If you ever get into trouble, doing a back crawl is the best way to keep you head above water.

Nothing shows the fight against the current better than this: WAVY photographer Aaron Kurtz is on shore.

“Does it look like I’m getting closer to the sandbar?” Andy asked.

He responded, “You aren’t even moving…you’re swimming in place.”

Not getting any closer to the sandbar perfectly illustrates the problem. You are swimming, but not moving, because you are heading into the strong currents.

It takes a lot of work to get to the sandbar. People struggle to get to the sandbar. They think it is close, they get stuck in the middle, they get caught in the current and as we know — they can die drowning out here.

After 20 minutes, Andy quit fighting the rip tide current, and let it drift him to the far shore, which is closer to the sandbar. He got his footing, got out of the water and then walked up the shore. Looking back to shore, you realize it is a big swim.

The National Park Service has jurisdiction over the beach. Rangers periodically ask swimmers to leave the water and return to the beach.

Virginia has jurisdiction over the water, and there are no plans now to ban swimming nor to close the beach.

“I’m not sure we can keep people out of the water. People can pull their boats up to this sandbar and jump in. We don’t have the authority to do that,” Williams said. “If we were to close down the beach, then the the park service would have to maintain with manpower to keep people physically out of the water, and I am not sure that is anything anyone is prepared to do.”

10 On Your Side sent questions to the National Park Service. We got this back from

Andy Fox: What are the challenges to prohibit swimming in College Creek?

Steven Williams, Chief Ranger with the Colonial National Historical Park (NHP): “Colonial NHP does not have jurisdiction in the James River to enforce prohibitions on swimming or water-related activities that occur off of federal land.

Colonial Law Enforcement (LE) Rangers do, however, contact park visitors who they observe swimming or engage in other water related activities at College Creek to have them leave the water and return to the beach area. The LE staff who periodically patrol the area, and the long-time existing sign, inform the visitors of the dangers of the rip currents at College Creek as it relates to swimming and other water-based activities when they enter the area to access the shoreline.”

Andy: What conversations will take place and with which organizations moving forward on whether swimming should be banned?

Williams: “The park is currently in the process of starting collaborative meeting with James City County Police, Fire and Life Safety, James City Public Information office, Virginia Marine and Resource Police, Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries, JCC Board of Supervisors, the County Manager, and concern citizens to examine and discuss the public safety issue related to swimming and or water related activities at College Creek.”

Andy: Is it such a safety hazard that it is in the public interest safety wise to ban swimming from the beaches?

Williams: “The rip currents present at College Creek are a serious public safety hazard because of the strength of the currents, regardless of how strong of a swimmer the person may be.  The natural phenomena of the area makes water related activities extremely dangerous.  The park will be discussing with the previously mentioned stakeholders about our concerns within the water directly adjacent to our beaches, what solutions can be put in place to mitigate the public risk and prevent further loss of life.  Visitor safety is of utmost concern to the NPS and all local agencies responsible for public safety in and around James City County.”