Open water swimmers want their own Tennessee River lane in Chattanooga

Open water swimmers want their own Tennessee River lane in Chattanooga

September 4th, 2013 by Judy Walton and Louie Brogdon in Local Regional News

Bethany Smithers, manager of L2 Boards, paddles between the Market Street Bridge and the Walnut Street Bridge. Stand-up paddlers and other river users can be seen by boaters, but swimmers can't and need a dedicated lane for safety, advocates say.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

POLL: Should swimmers have their own lane in the river?


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Iron man signup begins today. The first Ironman Chattanooga, scheduled for Sept. 28, 2014, is expected to bring more than 2,000 triathletes to the Scenic City.

• What: Ironman Chattanooga consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run. The race is a qualifier for the 2015 Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.

• How: General registration will open online at

• When: Starting at noon today

• Entry fee: $650

Andrew Byrne paddles along the Tennessee River near downtown Chattanooga. Citing safety concerns, a local group wants swimmers to have their own lane in the river.

Andrew Byrne paddles along the Tennessee River near...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Boats and barges on the Tennessee River, sure. Bass fishermen, kayakers, paddleboarders and Ducks, of course. But COWS? Maybe. These are milers, not milkers.

The Chattanooga Open Water Swimmers -- COWS for short -- is drafting a plan to help make the Tennessee River downtown more swimmer-friendly. The group hopes to propose a "swimmers easement" along the North Shore, but complications are rife, from restricting access to a popular fishing area to winning state and federal approval.

It's a natural evolution for an outdoors-oriented city that's hosting the U.S. Masters Swimming Open Water National Championship in May and the Ironman triathlon next September, organizer Karah Nazor says.

"One would think that Chattanooga would be open-water-swim friendly, when in fact it is not," said Nazor, an English Channel swimmer who founded the annual Swim the Suck event and whose mother is Chattanooga Times Free Press staff writer Karen Nazor Hill.

The COWS now hold an open-water swim every Wednesday, but they do so at their peril, Nazor said.

"If you go swimming in the river or the lake by yourself, you are going to get run over by a boat. You have to have a kayaker or [stand up paddleboarder] there as ... a pilot. Boaters can see them, but they can't see swimmers," Nazor said.

Aside from motorized watercraft, the river holds many other dangers. Currents can be very strong, and there are few places downstream from downtown where swimmers can safely exit the water, she said.

The group is working up a proposal to designate a lane for swimmers along the North Shore from near the Olgiati Bridge upstream to the power lines at Chattanooga Golf and Country Club. The lane would be set off by buoys and would be a no-wake zone for boats.

It would be safer for local open-water swimmers, she said. Plus, she said, she gets calls and emails every day from some of the 2,500 triathletes who will come to the Scenic City to run, bike and swim the Ironman, one of the most grueling athletic events on the planet.

"All these Ironman people are calling me, saying, 'Where can I swim?' And I say, 'You can't.'"

Swimming in murky, algae-ridden Chickamauga Lake upstream from the dam just isn't the same, Nazor said.

"That's just gross up there," she said. "I want the current."

Philip Grymes, executive director of Outdoor Chattanooga, supports having a safe place for Ironman athletes to train, but said getting there will be tough. Aside from local governments, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard and other government agencies would have to approve.

"It's tricky. The Tennessee River is a navigable waterway. There have been efforts in the past to make a no-wake zone from the Walnut Street Bridge to the Olgiati Bridge. There are laws for no-wake zones as it relates to marinas -- but even with Ross's Landing it hasn't happened," Grymes said.

Large commercial vessels use the channel at the center of the river, so they are not the issue, Grymes said. It's bass boats, personal watercraft and other fast-moving small watercraft that pose the greatest danger to swimmers.

Lt. Geoffrey Albe, with the U.S. Coast Guard Ohio Sector, said the service would at least be open to talking about the idea.

"We're concerned about the safety of the citizens that would be using the waterway along with ensuring that commercial traffic would be able to flow unimpeded and would be able to share the waterway," Albe said by telephone. "We can work together with the local authorities along with this group to come up with a good solution."

Matthew Clarey, hunter education and boating safety coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, said he's interested to see how the swimming lane would work, because he's never seen such a proposal. Clarey handles permitting of special events on the river for the state.

"I've never had anyone ask or request anything like this before," Clary said. "They will just have to request it -- send us a letter and a proposal. Once we look at that, we'll have to get together with the U.S. Coast Guard and TVA and we'll have to see how it turns out."

Multiple agencies would have to sign off on the proposal, but Clarey said it would likely be treated by TWRA as a permanent boating safety regulation. That process could take six months or more, he said.

But Chris Coleman, owner of Chattanooga Fishing Guides in Soddy-Daisy, said that would take some doing.

"Some local fishermen tried to get no-wake [zones] on boat ramps on Chickamauga Lake" and got nowhere, he said.

"It's nearly impossible to get it approved," Coleman said.

Besides, he said, fishermen will fight any plan that would ban them from what he said is a "prime fishing area."

"That's probably the most-fished area down there before the dam," he said. "It's going to cause quite a bit of controversy when you start telling the fishermen they can't run through an area. I'd say they'll meet some strong resistance when they try to pass that through."

Nazor said swimmers already are using the area, and she's open to working with fishermen and others.

"It's not that boats can't go, it's just that we need to raise awareness that there will be swimmers there," she said.

As things are, swimmers have to exercise alongside a stand-up paddleboarder or a kayak, so boaters don't run over them. The swim-lane proposal aims at barring motorized watercraft from a narrow, bouyed area along the North Shore outside the main channel -- except when docking or supporting other nonmotorized boats.

"I think we are going to see a lot more swimming events come to Chattanooga, because it has been on the map for being an outdoor athletes-friendly city. But right now it is not friendly to swimmers at all."

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at or 423-757-6481.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at or 423-757-6416.