Table of Contents


The influence of weather and conditions on safety, especially on our stretch of the Potomac River should not be underestimated. The river is prone to fast currents, concentrated winds, quick-moving thunderstorms that move down the river, and challenging lighting in the early morning and late afternoon hours. Coaches and individuals should make a concerted effort before launching to determine whether doing so is a wise choice and how best to be prepared once launched. All river users are advised to consult up-to-the-minute weather conditions and predictions before launching. Likewise, it is critical that users consider their or those they are coaching’s skill level in the given conditions.

 It is very easy to get into trouble quickly, even with “experienced” athletes and coaches involved. Living to row another day, protecting lives and equipment, should be the rule, not the exception. 

Do not launch if the potential for trouble exists.


Rowing before sunrise or after sunset, which is most common in the fall and early spring seasons, requires care and attention, as well as quality lighting. 

Do not launch in darkness without proper and fully functioning lighting! 

Users should be aware that the areas above Washington Canoe Club get progressively darker because of the lack of lighting on the shore. From Key Bridge downstream conditions have a tendency to be brighter because of lighting on the shore, but these static lights can blend in by reflecting off the water and be confused with the lights of river users. 

All users should do the following:

  • Take extra precautions to look around frequently. When in doubt, assume what you see is another river user!
  • Per USRowing, have a red/green (port/starboard) light on the bow of their boat, and a white light on the stern. This follows standard USCG requirements and helps indicate to others the direction travel is being taken which helps others take appropriate course corrections to avoid a collision.
    • Lights should be bright but diffused, and should not blink.
    • Lights should not be obscured by equipment or athletes in the boat.
  • It is advised that scullers, the bow-seats of crews, coxswains, and paddlers wear brightly colored shirts that offer a contrast to the surrounding darkness. Clothing that includes reflective elements offers additional possibilities for catching the attention of others.
  • River users should take care to listen carefully for the sound of other athletes paddling or rowing coaches’ launch engines, and the voices of coxswains and coaches giving instructions.
    • In addition, coxswains, and a member of straight (non-coxed) crew should carry a whistle or other noise maker for audible warnings. Whistles should be used to alert others of imminent danger, or collision. 
  • If you are in doubt about whether someone can see you, speak up! Yell, and take any necessary action to get the attention of the approaching boat(s).
    • Coxswains and coaches who are sitting still must remain alert and be prepared to call out or move quickly in the event another crew does not see you!

Inclement Weather 

The Potomac reacts in particular ways depending on conditions, and can easily surprise a crew. Coaches should use common sense in the face of inclement weather. Fast currents, wind, debris, extreme temperatures, lightning storms, and fog are all reasons for not practicing on the water. Currents and wind can quickly combine to create dangerous conditions. Crews should not launch if such conditions exist or are seriously threatening. It is highly advised that coaches and scullers listen closely to NOAA weather channels routinely. Real-time, localized, atmospheric conditions can be found here:

Storms, in general, travel in our area from South East to North West and usually move from well upstream of our rowable area down and across into the NW area of the city and Bethesda, MD. Depending on the tracking of the storm it can follow a path that mimics the direction of the river and in the worst of cases move directly downstream towards the bend in the river near TBC. It is not uncommon for river users to be able to see the storm front moving towards them as the leading band of wind and rain forms a “wall” of strong weather energy. It is imperative in these situations that crews get to the nearest facility they can safely reach, and in the worst possible scenario consider beaching on a sandy shore. Users on land at area facilities should be prepared to support users chased off the river by such a storm. In all cases, the lives of the athletes are more important than the equipment!


Coaches and rowers should keep in mind that oftentimes it is easy to launch from the dock but much harder to land in windy conditions. This is especially true with novices and small boats. Waves or swells generated by strong winds can quickly swamp a crew. This is especially true in wide parts of the river (i.e. between Memorial Bridge and the 14th Street Bridge or the area just downstream of TBC). However, the direction of the wind has the greatest impact on how the river will react.

  • The river between TBC and Fletcher’s Cove runs Northwest to Southeast.
  • South winds steady over 10mph generally create white caps below Key Bridge.
  • North winds steady over 15mph generally create white caps above Key Bridge. 
  • Winds coming from the Southeast will be blowing upstream against the current. In this situation, larger swells and white caps can be created. This can also when combined with a rising tide create greater flooding of the river. Wind blowing upstream against an outgoing tide can create significant chop, hazardous to small boats. 
  • The intensity of wind blowing downstream can increase upstream towards Hens and Chickens and beyond because of the topography of the surrounding shorelines.

What seems like a comfortable breeze on the dock can have a much greater effect once on the water.

Heavy Rains & Fast Currents

After heavy periods of rain currents can increase in speed and strength quickly. The river usually will rise over a period of 1-3 days after the cessation of precipitation and recede in about the same amount of time after peaking, barring further rain. At these times extreme caution should be taken. Areas for special consideration are:

  • Around and upstream of the Three Sisters Islands with increasing seriousness as one approaches and passes the Hens and Chicken islands (see river traffic map).
    • It is strongly advised that novice crews be kept below the Hens and Chickens during these times. In all cases, the currents can be quite swift and unpredictable due to the depth and topography of the river bottom. 
  • Special attention should also be paid to all bridge arches as currents are accelerated as they pass through them. There is a tendency for crews to be pulled towards the abutments, so care must be taken to keep a good distance from them.
  • Lastly with heavy rains and currents on the Potomac comes heavy debris in the form of large logs, tires, and water-logged animals.

River height and flow information can be found here: 

The Little Falls gauge height determines the general row ability of the river. The PRSC, when considering USGS predictions offers this advice for the viability of safe rowing:

Gauge HeightUSGS StagePRSC Observations
3-4 feetNormal river conditions
5 feetAction stageCurrent picks up, minor “swirlies” DS of the “Hen’s and Chickens”
5.5 feetCurrent increases. Care should be taken, especially with more novice crews and scullers.
6 feetForceful currents, large “swirlies” DS of “Hen’s and Chickens.” Small boats are unadvised, and large boats are only crewed by experienced athletes.
7 feetRowers and paddlers are advised not to launch.
10 feetFlood stageWashington Harbor flood gates up. Water on PBC apron.
12 feetModerate flood-stageWater inside PBC boat bays.
14+ feetMajor flood-stageWater through PBC to the street level and beyond.

“Swirlies” are defined as currents moving in a circular pattern that has a distinct visual appearance, and can physically move a shell or launch passing through them. The community is reminded that the river is tidal and tides will impact the river’s height and conditions.

Lightning Storms

Lightning storms are very dangerous to any river user. Sadly, rowers and paddlers in the U.S. have been struck by lightning. Crews should return immediately to their home dock or if they are too far away proceed immediately to the closest boathouse (TBC, PBC, WCC)

  • If weather reports indicate the potential for a storm, river users are advised to regularly monitor a local lightning monitor or website that displays this information. If lightning is detected returning to the dock is advised.
  • River users should hold off from launching for 30 mins after the last rumble of thunder, and/or the lightning/storm is at least 8 miles away from your location.  
  • Use of the shore if a boat house is too distant is acceptable. 
  • There does not have to be rain or thunder to have lightning! If the sky begins to look bad, it probably is.
  • Lightning can travel and strike miles from its source.
  • Coaches and individuals should use a lightning app on their phone or reference the links found above (under the Inclement Weather heading) to track storms and lightning strikes. 


When in doubt don’t launch! Fog is often thicker upstream of Key Bridge. Crews should not launch into fog if visibility is less than 500m. Keep in mind that conditions can worsen even after appearing to improve, thus closing in on athletes already on the water. 

Visibility is extremely reduced, and sounds are muted.

If caught in fog it is recommended that crews proceed with extreme caution and appropriately slower speeds in the direction of the boat house. Try to identify landmarks if possible, stay within sight of the shoreline, and move towards home.

 If the fog is too extreme it may be better to sit still. Be sure to make some noise so that others on the river can be alerted to your presence. Do not assume fog that appears to be thinning will continue to do so! 

Cold Weather/Winter Rowing 

Cold weather presents a number of hazards to athletes, Chief amongst them being hypothermia. Consideration should be given before launching in cold weather and proper precautions should be taken to minimize risks. Users should be aware that cold temps, especially when combined with precipitation or accidental immersion in the river can create immediate life-threatening conditions. Hypothermia can occur even in individuals who are not immersed in water. (see Appendix A). 

The PRSC endorses the Cold Weather Rule of 100: a sustained water temperature of 50 degrees or less occurs, combined with a daytime high ambient (no windchill) air temperature that will not exceed 50 degrees. When this rule is activated the following protocols and guidelines should be followed:

  • Rowing with a safety launch is advised and the launch should stay within 100m at all times. 
  • Scullers rowing without a safety launch should row in groups or with a buddy.
  • Wear an inflatable, compact, life vest or wetsuit. 
  • Stay closer to shore 
  • A noise maker of some kind should be carried in each shell and be attached in some manner so as not to be lost if the shell capsizes. 

However, the only true safety device or practice other than common sense is a support/coaching launch. In the event of an emergency, a well-prepared safety launch can assist the individuals in question and transport them to safety. Even then hypothermia is an issue.

 All individuals should ask themselves before launching if being on the water is the best and only way to train. See Appendix A for information on Hypothermia and other weather-related emergencies. 

Other Safety Considerations 

The following are suggestions that should be referenced with all of the above-stated material. These suggestions would help to increase safety and organization on the water so that all users of the river will know what to expect from each other. 

  • Coaches are advised to show the USRowing’s Safety Video to all athletes each year (and with all new athletes in a season), and go over it each year with all athletes. In addition, it is advised that the coaches go over emergency procedures with their rowers each season. 
  • All shells should be equipped with emergency, quick releases for foot stretchers. This includes heel tie-downs and quick-release laces/velcro closures. Likewise, each rowing shell must be equipped with a secure and undamaged bow ball.
  • Each boat (coach or athlete) has the responsibility of watching where it is going and avoiding collisions. Boats without a coxswain must be aware and alert other river users of potential hazards or collisions!
  • Once crews or paddlers in a given practice have been launched they should row to and wait at a spot specified by the coach that is no more than 500m away from the dock. High school and college crews should not warm up or row without a coach’s supervision!
    • A common place for crews launching from TBC to stop and wait is the stairs on the Georgetown shoreline near Wisconsin Avenue. 
    • Crews from TBC that are going downstream should wait adjacent to TR Island, taking care to move at least 250m beyond the corner of the island at the bend in the river so crews headed downstream are clear of stopped crews. 
  • Coaches should avoid taking out crews of differing speeds and skill levels. Having several crews spread over 1000-2000m or more may as well not have a coach’s safety launch with them. Furthermore, the coach can not adequately supervise or coach crews in this fashion. 
  • Coaches should keep all crews at “racing distance” apart. That is the distance (width) between two crews. Coaches should limit the distance across all crews in a practice to 3 abreast. 
  • Coaches must keep their crews on the right side of the river at all times! Please refer to the information concerning traffic patterns for the river. Do not cross the “centerline” of the navigable portions of the river.
  • Slow-moving crews should yield to faster crews by shifting their course further to the right and allowing the overtaking crew to pass. Larger shells have right away over smaller shells due to their decreased maneuverability. 
  • Coaches who wish to stop and work with crews should do so only in areas where they are not impeding the flow of traffic. Please refer to the River Traffic Patterns section. 
  • Boats should not turn upstream from bridges unless they are at least 300m from the bridge (more if stronger currents are present). Swift currents can pull shells into bridge abutments very quickly! 
  • Boats wishing to turn should make sure that no other crew is approaching first. Do not cut in front of oncoming crews! Furthermore, crews should make sure to complete their turn only after moving to the other side of the river first, before proceeding in the opposite direction. 
  • Crews that are landing on a dock have priority over crews wishing to launch. This is especially true in inclement weather. 
  • Landing shells should use all available dock space; they should not wait for the very end of the dock to become open if there is space further up the dock. Crews should endeavor to walk their boat up so that other crews can land unless asked by a coach not to (i.e. another boat is going around them to fill open dock space above them). 
  • All boats should take not more than a minute and a half on the dock once the boat has either been placed in the water or has returned from a row. If the boat has serious equipment problems or missing rowers, the shell should be removed from the water. Novice crews are allowed some leeway but should be taught how to function quickly on the dock. Boat and oars come before shoes!