NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — So far this year, the latest data from May 17 shows that boating crashes and accidents involving kayaks, canoes and other paddle crafts have claimed the lives of nine people in Tennessee.

That’s only one more life lost in a boating incident than the same time last year, and not far off the 11 fatalities recorded by the end of May 2022, according to Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) Officer Josh Landrum.

Two of the incidents occurred in back-to-back days on May 12 and May 13, with four of the fatalities involving paddle crafts. It’s been an increasing issue statewide, and as one of the biggest boating holidays of the year draws closer, officials are urging boaters to stay safe.

TWRA boating officer (Photo: WKRN)

‘We don’t even want to see one fatality’

The TWRA is a participant in National Safe Boating Week, which runs from May 20 to May 26 prior to the Memorial Day weekend and serves as a reminder to promote boating safety and preparation for the summer boating season.

(Source: TWRA)

In total, there were 29 recreational boating fatalities reported in Tennessee in 2022 — an increase from the 22 reported in 2021. However, that number was slightly under the 31 lives lost in boating accidents in 2020.

Before that, Landrum said the last time the state even neared 30 boating fatalities was in 2005. Only eight deaths were reported in 2019.

With nine fatalities only halfway into 2023, Landrum said it’s possible that there could be even more lives lost this year if people don’t take the proper precautions.

“You just never know, but we are close to where we were last year, so it would not surprise me if we end up having that mid to high 20s number,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll never get there. We don’t even want to see one fatality. We are on track with the same type of statistics we had last year.”

Increased boating traffic may correlate with fatalities

The increase in fatalities over the last three years may correlate with a noticeable increase in boating traffic on the state’s lakes and rivers, Landrum said. Percy Priest Lake, where three people have drowned as of May 17, is one of the most visited lakes in the state.

The body of a missing kayaker was recovered from the lake on Feb. 21 after a witness saw the person’s kayak overturn. Then, about two months later, another kayaker who went missing after colliding with a boat on Percy Priest Lake was recovered on April 29.

Missing boater in La Vergne
(Photo: WKRN)

The third fatality occurred on May 12 when a 19-year-old drowned after a Jon boat capsized near the Poole Knob boat ramp.

People die in boating incidents involving nearly every type of vessel each year, but Landrum said people aboard paddle crafts like kayaks and Jon boats can be especially vulnerable.

“That is due to people, unfortunately, they’re supposed to have a lifejacket with them and it’s highly recommended that they be wearing it,” he said. “But most of the folks who are involved in these fatalities drown because they’re not wearing that lifejacket.” 

In 2022 and 2020, open motorboats were the type of vessel most commonly involved in fatal incidents. Percy Priest Lake and Watts Bar Reservoir were the bodies of water with the most fatal incidents in 2022, with four deaths reported at each — making up about 28% of the 29 fatalities.

Alcohol contributing factor in 33% of injuries, fatalities

Speeding, being under the influence of alcohol or drugs and not having a proper lookout on a boat can also increase the risk of injury or even death, said Landrum, who added that alcohol use is a contributing factor in nearly 33% of serious injury boating crashes and fatalities nationwide.

(Source: TWRA)

“It is a major issue nationwide still,” Landrum said. “In the automobile world and even in the marine world, we strongly push having a designated driver.” 

Although investigators were still awaiting blood toxicology results in some cases last week, Landrum said none of the fatalities reported so far this year have involved alcohol. However, officers tend to make several arrests for boating under the influence over Memorial Day weekend.

In the state of Tennessee, it is not illegal to have alcohol on a boat, but it is illegal to operate a boat while under the influence. A new state law making penalties for boating under the influence, or BUI, the same as driving under the influence took effect in 2021.

“We want people to go out there and have a good time, go out there and take some alcoholic beverages, but do it safely,” Landrum said. “Make sure you can make it back by having a designated driver who’s not been drinking at all and can get everybody back safely to the boat ramp.”

How to ‘make sure you go home safely’

The TWRA also encourages boaters to check their safety equipment before heading out on the water this summer. Landrum said that includes checking for working fire extinguishers, working light bulbs and even making sure rodents haven’t chewed through lifejackets.

“That’s one of the big tips we give toward the beginning of the season is to go through your boat, check all of that safety equipment, make sure your boat registration is still good and continue to maintain your boat,” he said.

TWRA boating generic
(Source: TWRA)

Boaters can schedule a free vessel safety check with the local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary or U.S. Power Squadrons to make sure all essential equipment is present and in good condition. The TWRA also suggests taking a boating safety course before heading out on the water.

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Other safety tips include using an engine cut-off device, letting someone on shore know the trip itinerary, having a communication device that works when wet and being aware of the surroundings. Above all else, Landrum said boaters should always remember their lifejackets.

“We can’t say it enough, just wear your lifejacket. It’s the one thing you can do to make sure you go home safely,” he said. “Just like riding in a vehicle, you wear your seatbelt. Whenever you’re in a boat, wear that lifejacket.”