Tennessee boating fatalities near 26-year high mark

Deaths for 2022 at 27 and counting

Staff Photo by Olivia Ross  / A sailboat floats on Chickamauga Lake at Booker T. Washington State Park on Labor Day, Sept. 5, 2022.
Staff Photo by Olivia Ross / A sailboat floats on Chickamauga Lake at Booker T. Washington State Park on Labor Day, Sept. 5, 2022.

Tennessee is at 27 boating fatalities for 2022 and closing in on 26-year highs of 31 tallied in 1996, 2004 and 2020, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

And there's still almost two months left in the year.

The most recent fatality happened Oct. 6 on Watts Bar Lake, said TWRA Capt. Matt Majors, a boating accident investigator for the state. Larry Ezell, 81, of Rhea County, Tennessee, was found floating near his pontoon boat that was afloat when found, according to TWRA.

Agency spokeswoman Mime Barnes said Tuesday in an email that Ezell had been reported overdue when authorities began searching. Officers from TWRA, Rhea County Sheriff's Office and Rhea County EMS were called to the lake and while they were en route, received another call that Ezell's vessel was located about 3 miles upstream from Watts Bar Dam, Barnes said. Ezell wasn't wearing a life jacket.

(READ MORE: Tennessee officials urge safety as boating season comes to an end over Labor Day weekend)

While there was no indication of impairment in Ezell's death, the primary contributing factor in most fatal accidents is intoxication, according to Majors.

"No matter how hard we work enforcement-wise and education-wise, we're seeing impaired operators," Majors said Tuesday in a phone interview. "It varies, but 20-30% of fatalities have alcohol or drugs as a contributing factor."

Besides staying sober, Majors said it's also important for boaters to be aware of their surroundings at all times when moving.

"People will just look away for a moment. It's very common for us to talk to people at the scene who say, 'They came out of nowhere,'" he said.

"In all actuality, that's not true," he said. "They didn't just come out of nowhere. You just recognized them being there when it's too late to avoid a crash."

Majors said even the most experienced boaters can let their attention slip. Age and experience doesn't mean a boater can become complacent, he said.

"I've been on the lake my whole life, not only recreationally but professionally," Majors said. "I think I maintain a proper lookout, but there are times when I look around and there are people closer to me than I recognized."

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

Even though summer is over, boating season isn't.

"We tend to think of boating as a summer activity, but it continues throughout the year," Barnes said. "We have also had an increase in the number of boaters in this time and, therefore, busier waterways."

Majors and Barnes said boating, once mostly a summer pastime, is now becoming a year-round activity and growing in popularity.

Boat sales boom

Majors said it's possible another boom in boat sales is coming as increasing inventory tries to meet demand, according to conversations he's had with boat dealers in the region.

"Most of the boat dealers are finally starting to get inventory back in," he said. "Now that the inventory is back, we might see a spike in the spring."

More new boaters means more inexperience, according to Barnes and Majors.

Any Tennessee resident born after Jan. 1, 1989, must show the TWRA-issued wallet Boating Safety Education Certificate as proof of successful completion of the TWRA boating safety exam, Barnes said.

Majors said even older new boaters who don't fall under the certificate requirement are seeking training, and some boaters are demonstrating better decision-making.

"We're seeing people on the water who not only are educated, we're seeing designated operators," he said.

Whether inexperienced, experienced or somewhere in between, safety should always be foremost in boaters' minds, Barnes and Majors said.

"Regardless of the time of year, we ask all boaters to wear a life jacket, let someone know your plans and have a designated operator. Don't operate a vessel impaired," Barnes said.

She said cold weather boating requires a different approach, pointing to recommendations on the website takemefishing.org, which includes suggestions to pack survival clothing and footwear, two pairs of warm gloves, hand and toe warmers, face and eye coverings, have passengers get low and face the rear of the boat when underway, keep life jackets on when moving or not, keep the boat and motor maintained in top condition, avoid boating alone and don't take chances.

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

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[*, *, As of Nov. 8, 2022., As of ]