Personal watercraft found floating, 80-year-old Estill Springs man’s body recovered Monday

Boating deaths so far in 2023 stand at 19 in Tennessee

The body of an 80-year-old Estill Springs, Tennessee, man was pulled from Tims Ford Lake after he apparently went under the water while taking his personal watercraft out of the lake at a boat ramp in Franklin County.

Edward Harper's body was found not far from where his personal watercraft was still floating, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

Harper's empty watercraft was discovered by an angler who happened by the ramp, agency spokesperson Barry Cross said Tuesday in an email.

The incident happened at the Rock Creek Boat Ramp on Tims Ford Lake in Harper's hometown sometime Sunday, authorities said. The boat ramp is at the Rock Creek Public Use Area, north of the main body of the lake near Winchester, the Franklin County county seat.

(READ MORE: Boating fatalities ahead of 2022 pace as Safe Boating Week rolls into Memorial Day holiday)

The passerby who called 911 was planning to do some fishing when he noticed a car with an attached, empty personal watercraft trailer on the boat ramp, Franklin County Emergency Management Agency and Rescue officials said in a news release issued Monday.

"After a few minutes, the fisherman noticed an empty WaveRunner watercraft floating across the lake and feared the worst and called 911 to report a possible drowning," officials said in the release.

Rescue squad divers then began the search, sweeping across the bottom of the creek, officials said. The search continued throughout the day Sunday and into the nighttime hours, with authorities finally halting activities around 2 a.m. CDT Monday to wait for sunrise.

At 8 a.m. Monday, crews began searching again using a remote-controlled, underwater craft equipped with sonar, authorities said. They found Harper's body in the main channel of Rock Creek at a depth of 39 feet.

Harper appeared to have been enjoying a day on the lake when the weather began to change with thunderstorms rolling in Sunday, authorities said in the release. He might have been rushing to load his craft ahead of the storms when he apparently fell in.

Harper's death marks the 19th boating-related fatality of 2023 on Tennessee waterways, according to wildlife agency records. At 19, the number of deaths is just behind last year's mark of 22 on Aug. 16, 2022. By the end of 2022, the number of fatalities had reached 29.

(READ MORE: 'Operation Dry Water' launched to promote boater safety over July 4 holiday weekend)

2022 Boating fatalities in Tennessee

— The number of recreational boating fatalities for 2022 was 29, up from 22 in 2021.

— The most common type of vessel in fatal incidents was an open motorboat with 18 incidents.

— The lengths of vessels most commonly involved in fatal incidents were less than 16 feet and 16-26 feet, with 12 incidents each.

— The bodies of water with the most fatal incidents were Percy Priest Reservoir and Watts Bar Reservoir, with four incidents each.

Source: Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency 2022 Tennessee Boating Incident Statistical Report

Boating fatalities have averaged 22 a year over the 58-year history of Tennessee's boating records, records show.

"Boating fatality numbers fluctuate year after year," Cross said Tuesday. "While we are below the 2022 boating fatality number; we are almost identical to 2021."

The year the pandemic started in 2020, boating fatality numbers soared to 31, tying a 40-year high mark set in 1996, then rebounded in 2022 back to a near-average 21 deaths, records show. Then in 2022, the number of fatalities swelled to 29.

The most fatalities ever happened in 1973 when 47 people died on Tennessee waterways, records show.

(READ MORE: Rules of the waterways)

U.S. Coast Guard statistics show drowning was the reported cause of death in 4 of every 5 recreational boating fatalities in 2021, and 83% of those who drowned were not wearing life jackets, according to officials with the National Safe Boating Week campaign, which hosts safety awareness activities at the beginning of the season on Memorial Day.

Harper's lack of a life jacket or other personal flotation device is a tragic lesson for others, Cross said, especially those who boat on personal watercraft.

"While boaters are not required to wear a PFD, jet skiers are required to wear them," Cross said.

Contact Ben Benton at or 423-757-6569.