No float, no boat: Kayaking Farrell learns a lesson

Row, row, row your boat, but make sure you have a life vest! That's the lesson Matthew Farrell learned on August 9 when he took his new kayak to Lake Albemarle for a day of fishing with a few friends.

Fun in the sun turned serious, Farrell recalls, when three uniformed and armed officers from the Department of Game & Inland Fisheries pulled up in a motor boat. Farrell says the officers pulled him off the lake to check his fishing license, which he had, but had failed to bring out on the boat.

The real problem arose, however, when they learned he didn't have a "personal floatation device" on board. When they refused to allow him back on the water, Farrell says, he was shocked.

"To say that I'm probably going to drown in four feet of water because I don't have a life vest is pretty much absurd," says Farrell. While many Charlottesvillians know the oft-bow-tied Farrell as a fixture of downtown's literary and café scene, he's also a former Marine, and he vividly recalls required one-mile swims in full gear.

Farrell says his surprise and dismay stem from his belief that his new "sit-upon" kayak is a floatation device.

The eight-and-a-half-foot long kayak is filled with air and has a "self-bailing feature" consisting of holes in the bottom so that the water level inside is equal to the water level outside.

"It's more like an inner tube than a canoe," says Farrell, pointing outthat "if you're in an inner tube, you don't have to have a life vest." Moreover, he says, there's nowhere on board the sit-upon to store a PFD.

Jeff Decker, boating coordinator for Virginia's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, confirms that inner tubes don't require a PFD, but he says the law does apply to all kayaks, which state law considers "vessels."

"I own an inflatable kayak, and I'm required by law to have a life jacket," says Decker, "if it's not something that's a toy for a swimming pool."

As for Farrell's "no storage" claim, Decker thinks there's an easy solution: wear it. "On you is the best place," Decker says, "to keep a life jacket."

Farrell was issued a $35 ticket, and paid additional court costs of $66.

He hopes others will learn from his expensive lesson, but he says he still finds the law paternalistic and frustrating.

"It's doubly aggravating because we're the city that launched Lewis and Clark," he says. "If they'd had to carry life vests, how far would they have gotten?"

Matthew Farrell in his "sit-upon" kayak