Tennessee boating-related fatalities in 2022 outpacing 2021, so far

Contributed by Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency / Searchers look for a missing Rhea County, Tenn., woman late on Memorial Day, May 30, on Watts Bar Lake.

A boating-related fatality involving a 10-year-old in Decatur County over the three-day holiday weekend, and another on Chickamauga Lake in Rhea County on Wednesday, bring the total for 2022 to 17 so far in Tennessee, outpacing 2021 by four deaths.

In the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's Region III - a 25-county slice of the state that includes the Chattanooga area's Chickamauga, Watts Bar and Nickajack lakes - fatalities rose to seven fatalities so far this year. The region led the rest of the state in charges of boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs (BUI) for the Fourth of July weekend, agency spokesman Lee Wilmot said in a news release.

Officers from TWRA, Rhea County Sheriff's Office, Rhea County Emergency Management and Rhea County Fire Department answered a call for an unresponsive man who fell from a boat and and was run over on Chickamauga Lake, spokeswoman Mime Barnes said Wednesday in a news release. The incident happened near the Highway 60 bridge, just after 1 p.m.

"Jordan Matthews, 34, a Hamilton County resident, along with an adult woman and child, were boating near the Highway 60 bridge," Barnes said. "Matthews was sitting outside the railing, at the bow of an older pontoon boat, when he fell into the water and was ran over by the vessel. He sustained several lacerations and was found unconscious."

Passing anglers helped pull Matthews back into the pontoon boat, where attempts were made to revive him through CPR until he was transported to Rhea Medical Center, where he was declared dead.

Matthews was not wearing a life jacket, Barnes said.


About 6 p.m. Saturday, a girl was on a tube being pulled by a pontoon boat when the outboard motor made contact with the tube and the girl, agency spokeswoman Amy Snider-Spencer, in West Tennessee, said by email. The incident happened on the Tennessee River near Double Island, about 10 miles east of the Lick Skillet community in Decatur County.

The agency reported 25 BUI arrests over the holiday weekend, including nine BUI arrests in Region III's Chattanooga area; eight in TWRA Region IV in the Knoxville area; seven in Region II in the Middle Tennessee area; and one in Region I in West Tennessee, according to Wilmot.

Boating safety tips

Before you go› Take a boating safety course; Tennessee’s boating handbook is available at bit.ly/3OZonLc.› Conduct vessel safety check.› Complete a predeparture checklist.› Check the weather.› File a float plan.What you need› Life jackets.› Throwable flotation aids.› Visual distress signals.› Sound producing devices.› Engine cut-off devices.On the boat› Be aware.› Boat sober.› Provide life jackets.› Provide navigation aids.Source: Operation Dry Water

There was a serious injury incident involving two juveniles in the Holder Branch area of Fort Loudon Lake near the Cove at Concord Park in Knox County, where a personal watercraft towing a tube with two juveniles onboard made contact with the side of an anchored pontoon boat, TWRA said. There were also eight additional property damage incidents reported across the state.

"It was busy but not as busy as we've seen in years past," Island Cove Marina & Resort assistant manager Michael Sheets said Wednesday in a phone interview. "I think gas prices and grocery prices are having an impact on it."

Sheets said he worked through the holiday weekend and didn't see too many problems, but there are sometimes boaters who raise concerns.

"One of the things we see time and time again here at the marina on busy holiday weekends is we'll see pontoon boats come in, and they'll appear overloaded with people," Sheets said. "The question we often ask each other as they pull up to the gas dock or pull up to park to go to the restaurant is, 'I wonder if they have life jackets for all those people on board, and I wonder what is that boat rated for?'"


Boaters should always know the limitations of their vessel and remember lives can depend on obeying the rules, he said.

The holiday weekend is targeted each year by a nationwide boating education effort called Operation Dry Water, a national weekend of awareness and enforcement campaign directed toward reducing alcohol and drug-related accidents and fatalities, agency officials said in the release. Operation Dry Water is held over the Independence Day holiday to give BUI enforcement high visibility during the peak boating season.

photo Staff Photo / A boat hauls a couple of towable tubes behind it on Chickamauga Lake in 2019 in Chattanooga.

TWRA's Chattanooga region waterways have been home to the majority of Tennessee's fatalities in 2022, including a death June 25 on Dockside Drive southeast of Soddy-Daisy, which happened near a boat not yet underway, that claimed the life of Christopher Johnson, 49, when he attempted to step onto a boat from the dock and slipped, hit his head, fell into the water and never resurfaced, according to the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.

Also, an incident on Nickajack Lake claimed the life of a Whitwell man in March, and a Meigs County man also died in March when a canoe he was in capsized on Watts Bar Lake, according to the agency. In May, a Spring City woman drowned on Watts Bar Lake after she jumped from a boat into the water to swim over Memorial Day weekend and never resurfaced, officials said.

Although there was no reported alcohol use involved in the Decatur County fatality, alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in recreational boater deaths, officials said, and sun, wind, noise, vibration and motion intensify the effects of alcohol, drugs and some medications. Under state law, operating a boat with a blood alcohol content of .08% or higher is illegal, the same as operating a motor vehicle, and penalties may include fines, jail, boat impoundment and the loss of boat driving privileges, officials said.

The last major summer holiday weekend comes in about eight weeks with Labor Day weekend the first week of September, and officials urge boaters to remain safety conscious through the rest of the season.

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