Policing Tennessee’s waters means trying to prevent bad behavior or picking up the pieces when something terrible happens.
“We deal mostly with really good people who make poor decisions,” said Matt Majors, an area boating officer for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
Deaths related to boating have increased from 10 in 2005 to 22 last year. Officials attribute the increase to more boaters on the water.
Staff photo by Allison Kwesell/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Wildlife officer Matt Majors, with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, patrols the Tennessee River at Chester Frost Park Friday. Officer Majors says that the waters are patrolled at random 24 hours a day, seven days a week and that the area is getting busy with the summer's rush of boaters.
At least eight local residents have drowned on area waterways since last Memorial Day, according to newspaper archives.
Dan Hicks, TWRA spokesman, said he’s continually surprised at some water enthusiasts’ disregard for basic safety.
“It’s amazing how many people get out on the water at the beginning of the season who aren’t prepared,” Mr. Hicks said.
He and another agent recently cited a new boater who’d never owned a boat, never driven a boat on a trailer and had not registered his boat, but was driving a pontoon on a trailer to the lake on the interstate.
During a patrol earlier this year, he stopped a boat with seven people but only two lifejackets, he recalled. While citing the owner, his fellow officer noticed water in the person’s boat and said, “Hey buddy, do you know your boat’s sinking?”
The officers had to tow the sinking watercraft to shore.
Officials say otherwise-responsible people will get on the water, out in the sun and suddenly forget basic safety such as checking to see if there’s enough gas in the tank.
Unexpected weather changes can cause trouble for the unprepared as well.
Tim Troutman, National Weather Service meteorologist based in Morristown, Tenn., said forecasts for the Southeast Tennessee counties shows scattered showers and thunderstorms today through Tuesday. Those storms and vacationers headed for the water can make a dangerous mix.
“If you can hear thunder, you’re close enough to be struck by lightning,” he said.
Boaters on the water are often the tallest objects, and they’re surrounded by water and metal — two electrical conductors, he said. He advised that boaters know the forecast and listen for updates and head to shore for shelter at the first sign of a storm.
If caught on open water during a thunderstorm, boaters should drop anchor, point the bow of the boat into the wind, stay low and not touch metal.
But even before hitting the water, boat operators should make sure their boat has an electrical grounding, he said.
People also forget that the lake or river isn’t the road and a boat doesn’t work like a car.
Tennessee Boating statistics
Year Injuries Accidents Fatalities
* 2010* 4 4 11
* 2009 78 156 22
* 2008 116 159 20
* 2007 111 189 17
* 2006 129 222 16
* 2005 108 169 10
* year-to-date numbers
Source: Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
Georgia Boating Statistics
Year Drownings BUIs Injuries Fatalities
* 2009 40 177 113 13
* 2008 62 215 107 18
* 2007 51 189 102 18
* 2006 59 187 96 19
* 2005 51 77 72 16
Source: Georgia Department of Natural Resources
“There are rules of road on the water,” said Betsy Woods, TWRA boating safety education coordinator. “Bottom line is: If you’re heading for a collision, boats don’t have brakes and there are no traffic signs.”
The holiday kicked off early for those watching local waterways. Serious boaters start hitting the area on Friday and, by this afternoon if the weather holds, the lakes and rivers will be crowded, officers said.
“The main thing to remember is: This is the first weekend a lot of people take their boat out on the water,” Ms. Woods said. “Do a pre-check, make sure there’s gas in the boat, the wires are OK, hoses are not cracked and dried up.”
Simple maintenance checks can go a long way to avoid being stranded, she said.
But boat maintenance can only save so much. If a person falls overboard without a lifejacket, that’s when things get dangerous, she said.
“When somebody says ‘lifejacket’ people think of the big, orange, bulky things that go around your neck,” Ms. Woods said.
But a year-old lifejacket awareness program by TWRA has pushed newer inflatable lifejackets that are less cumbersome to boaters but instantly inflate when the wearer pulls a cord.
When it comes to fatal accidents on the water, the highest concentration of drownings is among men ages 35 to 50, she said, and many simply don’t wear lifejackets.
For this weekend, Ms. Woods said a big concern is alcohol and crowding on the waterways, which increases the risk of collisions. More drownings tend to happen earlier in the year when the water is still cold and lake levels are higher, she said.
Boating Safety Tips
* Have a wearable life jacket for every person onboard
* If your boat is 16 feet or longer, there must be a Type IV throwable device onboard
* Have onboard a fire extinguisher if you have enclosed fuel compartments or cabins
* Anyone under the age of 13 must wear a life jacket at all times while the boat is under way; drifting is considered under way
* Any boat operator born after Jan. 1, 1989, must have onboard the TWRA-issued wallet Boating Safety Education Certificate
* Keep alcohol to a minimum; choose a designated boat operator
* Make sure there is a current boat registration
Boat Operation Basics
* Keep a proper lookout at all times
* Maintain a safe speed
* Practice good seamanship
* Cut the engine while boarding from the water or entering the water from the boat
* Be aware of the carbon monoxide hazards that exist and keep fresh air flowing
* No wake means idle speed
Source: Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
Area drownings since last May:
* Mikah Grant, 27, disappeared while tubing down Chickamauga Creek; body found April 26.
* Brett Thomason, 19, went missing during a trip down the Conasauga River on Feb. 19; body was found March 21.
* Waylon Keith “Bo” Hackney, 38, drowned while fishing on the same river on April 12; body was found April 18.
* Jeremy Landers, 23, and Jamichael Russell, 22; bodies were found after nearly a weeklong search within a mile of where they fell from their 15-foot fishing boat on May 5 in the Tennessee River.
* Hilavio Soniga, 64, Trancito Garcia, 32, Angel Ocampo, 49, drowned following a Nov. 21, 2009, boating accident below Nickajack Dam.
Source: Newspaper Archives
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Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...