Tennessee on track for record-setting year in boating fatalities

Boating fatalities in 2022 already tied for fourth-highest since 2001

Contributed photo by Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency / Emergency crews look for the body of a 57-year-old Dalton, Georgia, on Parksville Lake on Monday, August 15, 2022, in Polk County, Tenn.

The death Monday of a man on Parksville Lake in Polk County marks Tennessee's 24th boating fatality of the year - quickly surpassing 2021's total of 21 fatalities and tying the fourth-most deadly boating incidents in a single year since 2001.

And it's still August.

Authorities discovered the unoccupied boat of 57-year-old Billy Calhoun, of Dalton, Georgia, going in circles Monday afternoon near the East Parksville boat ramp where the man had gone boating alone, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency spokeswoman Mime Barnes said Monday in a news release.

Barnes said TWRA officers confirmed Calhoun was not wearing a kill switch or a life jacket. The cause of the accident is still under investigation.

Already, boating fatalities in 2022 have tied for fourth-most since 2001 behind 2004 and 2020, both of which are tied at 31, records show. There were 25 boating deaths in 2013 and the tally in 2022 currently ties 2011 at 24 with 19 weeks left to go in the year, TWRA boating accident investigator Capt. Matt Majors said Tuesday in a phone interview.

(READ MORE: Tennessee boating-related fatalities in 2022 outpacing 2021, so far)

At the current pace, boating fatalities in 2022 could reach a 40-year high of around 37 or 38, records show. In 1981, there were 38 boating fatalities in the state while the most boating fatalities on record happened in 1973 when 47 people lost their lives in boating accidents on Tennessee waters.

Majors hopes boating traffic declines when summer comes to an end. However, changes among watercraft and the users might be lengthening the season.

"We've still got half a year left, effectively," Majors said Tuesday in a phone interview.

"In Tennessee, you know, 30 years ago it was Memorial Day to Labor Day, that's when most people boated," he said.

"We've got tons of lakes and rivers, people are out year-round enjoying our tremendous fisheries, all the sightseeing they do, and there's concerts and venues on the water, so it's really attractive to a lot of people to get out there."

Compared with years past, there are more marinas and access points on the water, he said, and more new boaters add inexperience to the mix.

He said new paddlecraft like stand-up paddleboards and popular standbys like canoes and kayaks are increasing in numbers and attract inexperienced users who do not put the same focus on safety as owners of other vessels.

Any Tennessee resident born after Jan. 1, 1989, must have the TWRA-issued wallet Boating Safety Education Certificate as proof of successful completion of the TWRA Boating Safety exam before taking to the water, Majors said. Those who are old enough to avoid the legal requirement should consider taking the education course anyway to make sure they are up to date on the latest boating laws, he said.

The biggest to-do on the list is to wear a life jacket, he said.

(READ MORE: Whitwell, Tennessee, man's body recovered from Nickajack Lake after boating accident)

Looking ahead, Majors hopes for a slowdown on water-borne activity but noted people could be forming new habits.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that maybe we're toward the end of summer now that school's back in session, everybody's playing football, basketball and baseball again," Major said. Countering that, it's possible a COVID-19 pandemic response to do more fun things outside could continue its upswing, he said.

"For a couple of years there, that's all people had was outdoor activities; hunting, fishing and boating, which was absolutely great for our agency and the sports," Majors said. "But at the same time, when you put a lot of people in one place doing one thing you can have problems."

That combines with a boom in watercraft sales.

"The last two-three years, boat sales are out the roof - the same way with four-wheelers and campers; everything outdoors," he said.

(READ MORE: It's National Safe Boating Week. Here's how you can boat safely)

Meanwhile, the investigation into Monday's fatality continues.

Calhoun's body was recovered using a remote-operated vehicle, TWRA officers and the Underwater Recovery Team from the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, authorities said. Calhoun's body was in 36 feet of water when searchers found it about 8:20 p.m. Monday, according to TWRA.

His body will undergo an autopsy in search of factors involved in his death, Majors said.

Calhoun's pickup truck and boat trailer were located in the parking lot of a boat ramp just south of Mac Point Recreation Area, Majors said. Calhoun's boat was found unattended not far from another, smaller boat ramp a little further south, he said. Calhoun's body was recovered near the boat's last location.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.

More Info

TENNESSEE BOATING ALL-TIME HIGHS, LOWSThe following list shows the state’s boating high marks in the 56 years since the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency was established, 1965-2021:Most fatalities: 47 in 1973.Least fatalities: 2 in 1965.Most injured: 173 in 2004.Least injured: 1 in 1971.Most overall incidents: 222 in 2006.Least overall incidents: 13 in 1965.Most registered vessels: 314,620 in 1999.Least registered vessels: 70,899 in 1965.Source: Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency 2021 Tennessee Boating Incident Statistical Report

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Boating Incident Report Statistics 2001-2021Year/Fatalities2001: 112002: 212003: 172004: 312005: 102006: 162007: 172008: 202009: 222010: 192011: 242012: 182013: 252014: 172015: 142016: 222017: 162018: 232019: 82020: 312021: 212022: 24**As of Aug. 16, 2022.Source: Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency 2021 Tennessee Boating Incident Statistical Report