Summer's in full swing as the Fourth of July holiday weekend approaches and folks on the water can expect a significant law enforcement presence as the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency teams with the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators for "Operation Dry Water."
Tennessee's waterways are already very busy, according to TWRA spokesperson Mime Barnes.
"We are seeing an increase in accidents, boaters in waters," Barnes said, urging boaters to remain relaxed and alert over the weekend.
So far this year there have been 11 fatalities on Tennessee waters, 19 serious injury incidents, 25 incidents involving property damage and 44 arrests for boating under the influence, Barnes said.
BOATING SAFETY TIPS
BEFORE YOU GO*Take a boating safety course*Conduct vessel safety check*Complete a pre-departure checklist*Check the weather*File a float planWHAT YOU NEED*Life jackets*Throwable flotation aids*Visual distress signals*Sound producing devices*Engine cut-off devicesON THE BOAT*Be aware*Boat sober*Provide life jackets*Provide navigation aidsSource: Operation Dry Water
As far as the numbers of people on the water, the 2021 season has been more normal compared to last year, according to Stephanie Cooke, co-owner of the Ocoee Inn Marina in Polk County, Tennessee.
"Last summer we were busier," Cooke said, noting much of her 2020 business boom came from stir-crazy locals looking for something, anything to do in a COVID-19-restricted world. Now, "local people are traveling again. It's back to the beach, back to the routine."
This year the marina's customers are the more typical vacationing out-of-towners, she said, and "business is good."
For Crista Watts, at Rusty's Kayaks and Paddleboards on Lake Chickamauga's Harrison Bay in Chattanooga, her customers this year have been similar to last year.
"Last year, everyone was just getting out because of COVID," said Watts, who introduces customers to paddling and offers introductory instruction to get them on their way. "You're not close to people, it's on the water, you don't have to wear masks."
2020 BY THE NUMBERS
31: Total boating fatalities5: Fatalities on Pickwick Lake, the body of water with most fatalities in Tennessee53: Injury incidents82: Injuries28: Collisions with other vessels32: Personal water craft-involved incidents26: PWC-involved injury incidents4: PWC-involved fatalities9: Paddlecraft incidents5: Paddlecraft fatalities66: BUI arrests897: Citations issued542: Warning citations issued73,051: Vessels inspectedSource: Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
In 2021, the number of visiting and local customers remained about even while overall numbers are higher than last year, she said.
Whatever the craft, the greatest danger comes from impaired boaters, according to a TWRA investigator. Sun, wind, noise, vibration and motion intensify the effects of alcohol, drugs and some medications.
"Each year, our state suffers boating incidents and tragedies that could have been avoided if it weren't for the presence of drugs or alcohol. Our job is to protect those in the communities we serve and to ensure that recreational boaters, paddlers, fishermen and others who visit our waters are able to enjoy their time with family and friends safely," TWRA boating investigator Capt. Matt Majors said. "Our agency is joining all states and U.S. territories to do our part in keeping boaters safe and preventing incidents caused by boating under the influence."
In 2020 during Operation Dry Water, there were 11 boating under the influence arrests and eight serious injury boating-related incidents across Tennessee.
The TWRA reported a noticeable increase in traffic on the state's lakes and rivers in 2020 - including a boom in the use of paddle craft such as kayaks and paddleboards, whose users are required to use personal flotation devices, officials said earlier this year. After a record-low year of eight boating fatalities in 2019, 2020 had the most boating-related fatalities in 37 years with 32.
The 2020 boating season also stood out for its unusual COVID-19 protocols calling for limited group numbers and social distancing, among other pandemic-related measures now being lifted, although officials said the coronavirus possibly drove people outside in larger numbers.
Meanwhile, officials want everyone to avoid anything that can impair abilities or judgment.
Operating a boat with a blood-alcohol content of .08% or higher is illegal in Tennessee, the same as operating a motor vehicle, officials said. Penalties may include fines, jail, boat impoundment and the loss of boat driving privileges.
Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in recreational boater deaths.
"We certainly hope everyone enjoys the holiday weekend in a safe and responsible manner," Majors said. "Have a designated driver, wear your life jacket and enjoy."
Contact Ben Benton at [email protected] or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.
TENNESSEE BOATING ALL-TIME HIGHS, LOWS
The following list shows the state’s boating high marks in the 55 years since the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency was established, 1965-2020.Most fatalities: 47 in 1973Least fatalities: 2 in 1965Most injured: 173 in 2004Least injured: 1 in 1971Most registered vessels: 314,620 in 1999Least registered vessels: 70,899 in 1965Source: Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency