Boater safety and sobriety targeted by 'Operation Dry Water' for Tennessee's Fourth of July weekend

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

Planning to head out on the water for the Fourth of July holiday weekend? Don't drink, speed or become complacent about safety because the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency will be looking for violators starting Saturday.

TWRA is participating in Operation Dry Water from July 2-4, and law enforcement will be on the lookout for impaired and unsafe boaters while offering education about the dangers of combining boating and alcohol and what law enforcement watches for in regard to violators, according to agency spokesperson Mime Barnes.

Chickamauga Lake is one of the state's busiest bodies of water, and the number of boaters on the water will swell over the holiday, Barnes said.

"It is the busiest reservoir in the Chattanooga area, although all reservoirs in the area can be crowded on a holiday weekend," Barnes said Wednesday in an email.

But the number of fatalities is already worrisome, she said.

At this point in the season for 2022, TWRA's 25-county Region III has tallied six boating-related deaths, and wildlife officers have made 13 BUI arrests, Barnes said. TWRA's Region III counties span from Tennessee's state lines north and south and include the Chattanooga area's Chickamauga, Watts Bar and Nickajack lakes on the Tennessee River.

"Region III does currently have the highest number of fatalities this year," Barnes said of the region's rank among the agency's four regions across the state.

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

A death Saturday on Dockside Drive in the Lakesite community southeast of Soddy-Daisy - which happened near a boat not yet underway - 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. Emergency officials located Johnson, brought him to shore and attempted life-saving measures, but he was pronounced dead once he reached the hospital, according to a Sheriff's Office news release.

Deadly outcomes this year include an incident on Nickajack Lake that claimed the life of a Whitwell man in March. A Meigs County man also died in March when a canoe he was in capsized on Watts Barr Lake, and a Spring City woman drowned in May on Watts Bar Lake after she jumped from a boat into the water to swim and never resurfaced, according to TWRA.

As part of Operation Dry Water, TWRA is teaming with the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, officials said. Operation Dry Water was started by the boating law association in 2009, and officials say it has been highly successful in drawing attention to the dangers of boating and alcohol.

Over the holiday weekend, law enforcement officers will also be working to increase public awareness of the dangers of boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs, for both operators and passengers, officials said.

Boaters will notice an overall increase in officer patrols on the water.

"Our state suffers boating incidents and tragedies each year that could have been avoided if it weren't for the presence of drugs or alcohol," TWRA boating investigator Capt. Matt Majors said in the release. "Our goal 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. Our agency is joining all states and U.S. territories to do our part in helping keep boaters safe and preventing incidents caused by boating under the influence."


The 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

(READ MORE: Man dies when canoe overturns, marking Tennessee's fifth boating death for 2022)

Nature can play a role in boating safety, too.

The weather forecast for the holiday weekend is a typical pattern of high summer temperatures with lots of sun and pop-up thunderstorms and showers, according to the Local 3 News look ahead.

"If your location is right under a storm, heavy rainfall and lightning will be possible, so have a backup plan in place to head indoors over the holiday weekend," meteorologist Alison Pryor wrote in her Thursday weather blog. "The good news will be that showers will briefly reduce the heat and then move on. There will be plenty of dry time during the day."

The high Saturday will be 90. Sunday will feature a high of 92, and the Fourth of July will top out at 93, she said.

Sudden weather changes can present problems on the water, according to Barnes.

"Boaters are encouraged to keep an eye on the forecast and radar when inclement weather is expected in the area," she said. "We also encourage boaters to let someone know their daily plan and when they should be expected to return home."

(READ MORE: TWRA investigates Memorial Day Rhea County woman's drowning on Watts Bar Lake)

Island Cove Marina & Resort general manager Terry Kelley said inexperience, lack of safety knowledge and impairment are the biggest problems among boaters.

"Because of the pandemic, we've got a ton of inexperienced boaters out there," Kelley said Wednesday in a phone interview. "Everybody was looking for outdoor recreation, and so many people have bought boats.

"Our boat sales this year are not so great because inventory's been depleted," he said. "But in '20 and '21, we had 20% and 30% sales increases. We were selling every boat we could get our hands on. Now, we can't get our hands on boats, or we'd still be selling boats, but we are starting to see the requests slowing down some."

Kelley said every boater should get a boater safety education certificate whether they are required by state law to get one or not. State law requires Tennessee residents born after Jan. 1, 1989, to get the certificate before they can operate a boat.

"If you're actually just starting out, that's a great course to take just to further your knowledge," he said. "We've got people out here that don't know anything about the rules of the road; they don't understand how to meet or pass a boat; they don't understand which vessel's got the right-of-way in certain situations. For new boaters, there are no lines on the road out there, so they think it's just all wide open."


BEFORE YOU GO› Take a boating safety course; Tennessee’s boating handbook is available at› 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

What do the safest boaters do?

"They boat during the week," he said with a laugh. "No, they get educated, and they learn the rules of the road and study the channel markers."

Education is key to boating safety, Kelley said.

During Operation Dry Water in 2021, there were six serious injury boating-related incidents and 21 BUI arrests made across the state, according to TWRA. Of those BUI arrests, 13 took place in TWRA's 25-county Middle Tennessee region, the most in the state. In addition to the serious injury incidents, seven property damage incidents were reported, according to officials.

Statewide, 22 people died in boating-related incidents in 2021, down from 31 in 2020, according to state statistics.

TWRA's 2021 Tennessee Boating Incident Statistical Report shows there were more overall boating incidents - 19 - on Chickamauga Lake, followed by 15 on Kentucky Lake, 14 on Norris Lake and 13 on Percy Priest. For local comparison, Watts Bar in 2021 had nine incidents, Nickajack and the Hiwassee River both had two incidents. According to the state, incidents are those that involve death, a missing person, an injury which requires or should have required treatment beyond first aid, or property damage of $2,000 or more.

The Tennessee county that had the most overall incidents in 2021 was Hamilton at 18, distantly followed by Campbell at 11, according to the report.

Fatalities in 2021 were most numerous on Percy Priest Lake at five, followed by Chickamauga Lake at three, according to the report.

Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in recreational boater deaths, and sun, wind, noise, vibration and motion intensify the effects of alcohol, drugs and some medications, officials said.

Under Tennessee 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.

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

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