At nine, Tennessee's boating-related fatalities so far in 2023 are outpacing deaths in 2022. The end of National Safe Boating Week, May 20-26, coincided with the start of the Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial kickoff to summer.
Around a quarter of a million boats are registered in Tennessee, and along with the nine deaths statewide this year, 56 people have been injured, according to Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency statistics.
The state agency is urging boaters to keep an eye on safety as the summer boating season gets going and agency partners across the United States and Canada emphasize safe boating practices, including wearing life jackets, state officials said this month in a news release.
"Life jackets can save your life, but only if you wear them," agency Boating Education Coordinator Betsy Woods said in the release. "As always, we want our boaters to have an enjoyable, safe time on our waters across the state."
Staff officials recognize Tennessee offers boating enthusiasts an abundance of opportunities across the state. Memorial Day weekend is viewed as the unofficial start to the summer boating season.
So far in 2023, there have been nine boating fatalities statewide, one more than the tally at the same time in 2022, officials said. Two of the incidents occurred on back-to-back days, May 12-13. Four of the fatalities have involved paddle craft.
One of those deaths involved a small boat with six people aboard that capsized May 12 on Percy Priest Lake, resulting in the death of Myo Kyo, 19, of Smyrna, Tennessee, according to the state agency. Wildlife officials said the six had been fishing near the Poole Knob Recreation Area on Percy Priest and a decision was made to go toward the Bryant Recreation Area by boat.
All six boarded a 14-foot flat-bottom boat and began crossing the lake, but the vessel began taking on water and capsized. Wildlife officers found five members of the group had made it safely to shore, but Kyo was missing, and crews began a search of the area, according to a May 12 agency news release. That incident marked the eighth boating-related fatality of 2023.
"Safe boating is at the front of every officer's list this time of year," agency spokeswoman Mime Barnes said Friday in an email. "It is part of our agency mission. An officer's role is to ensure everyone is safe while they're enjoying the lake."
Unlike 2022, Chickamauga Lake has been spared from deadly incidents so far in 2023, Barnes said. In 2022, Chickamauga Lake led the state in boating-related deaths at 13. Norris Lake was the site of the second-most fatalities at 10.
"I know Region 1 has had four fatalities. Region 2 has had three, and Region 3 has had two," Barnes said of the 2023 boating deaths. "Both of those in my region were paddle crafts. One was Dale Hollow, and the other was in Warren County."
Barnes' region — Region 3 — consists of Bradley, Bledsoe, Clay, Cumberland, DeKalb, Fentress, Grundy, Hamilton, Jackson, Marion, McMinn, Monroe, Morgan, Overton, Pickett, Polk, Putnam, Rhea, Roane, Sequatchie, Van Buren, Warren and White counties. Regions 1, 2 and 4 divvy up the state's remaining 71 counties in three additional slices of the state from west to east, respectively.
There has been a noticeable increase in traffic on the state's lakes and rivers the past few years, especially in paddle craft, state wildlife officials report.
Boat sales have boomed since the pandemic began and people looked to the outdoors as a cure for cabin fever.
"Coming off a record year of extraordinary demand in 2021 led to the second-highest ranked year in nearly two decades for recreational marine expenditures at $56.7 billion," according to Business Wire, a trade organization of the North American recreational boating industry. "New powerboat retail unit sales normalized in 2022, down an estimated 15-18%, to pre-pandemic growth years — 2015-2019 — with an estimated 250,000 new units sold, 25% above previous averages between 2008-2014. Looking ahead to 2023, early indications point to continued healthy demand, with new retail unit sales expected to remain on par with 2022."
That means a lot of boats are on the water these days, according to officials.
The annual safety crusade comes from the Safe Boating Campaign, a global awareness effort to encourage boater safety.
"... prepare for a great boating season by inspecting your boating safety gear and commit to providing comfortable life jackets for all your passengers to wear every time you go boating," said National Safe Boating Council Executive Director Peg Phillips in a news release
U.S. Coast Guard statistics show drowning was the reported cause of death in 4 of every 5 recreational boating fatalities in 2021, and that 83% of those who drowned were not wearing life jackets, according to campaign officials.
TIPS FOR BOATERS
— Take a boating safety course. Gain valuable knowledge and on-water experience in a boating safety course with options for novice to experienced boaters.
— Check equipment. Schedule a free vessel safety check with local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary or U.S. Power Squadrons to make sure all essential equipment is present, working and in good condition.
— Make a float plan. Always let someone on shore know the trip itinerary, including operator and passenger information, boat type and registration, and communication equipment on board.
— Wear a life jacket. Make sure everyone wears a life jacket every time. A stowed life jacket is no use in an emergency.
— Use an engine cut-off device. An engine cut-off device, or engine cut-off switch, is a safety device to stop the boat's engine should the operator unexpectedly fall overboard.
— Watch the weather. Always check the forecast before departing on the water and frequently during the excursion.
— Know what's going on around you at all times. Nearly a quarter of all reported boating accidents in 2022 were caused by operator inattention or improper lookout.
— Know where you're going and travel at safe speeds. Be familiar with the area, local boating speed zones and always travel at a safe speed.
— Never boat under the influence. A BUI is involved in one-third of all recreational boating fatalities. Always designate a sober skipper.
— Keep in touch. Have more than one communication device that works when wet. VHF radios, emergency locator beacons, satellite phones and cellphones can all be important devices in an emergency.
Source: Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
2022 REPORTABLE BOATING INCIDENTS IN TENNESSEE
— The total number of registered vessels in 2022 was 254,741, an increase of 5,502 from 2021.
— The total number of reportable incidents in 2022 was 134, a decrease from 2021 which had 145.
— The incident rate for 2022 was 52.6 per 100,000 registered vessels, a decrease from 2021, which was 57.5 per 100,000.
— The body of water that reported the most incidents was Chickamauga Lake, with 13 incidents.
— The county that reported the most incidents was Hamilton County, with 13.
— The monetary amount of damage resulting from boating incidents in 2022 was nearly $2.6 million. That was an increase from 2021, which reported about $1.6 million.
— The most common type of boat involved in an incident was an open motorboat.
— The leading type of incident was collision with vessel, with 78 occurrences.
— The leading primary cause of incidents was careless/reckless operation.
— Alcohol and/or drug use was a primary cause in 4% of incidents in 2022. That was an increase from 2021, which was 3% of incidents.
— The most likely time to be involved in an incident was between noon and 8 p.m.
— The most likely day of the week to be involved in an incident was Saturday.
— The leading age group of operators to be involved in an incident was 46 to 50 years old.
2022 BOATING FATALITIES IN TENNESSEE
— The number of recreational boating fatalities for 2022 was 29. That was an increase from 2021, which reported 22.
— The type of vessel most commonly in fatal incidents was the open motorboat with 18 incidents.
— The length of vessel most commonly in fatal incidents was less than 16 feet, and 16 to 26 feet, with 12 incidents each.
— The body of water with the most fatal incidents was Percy Priest Reservoir and Watts Bar Reservoir, with f0ur incidents each.
Source: Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency 2022 Tennessee Boating Incident Statistical Report