As Tennessee boating fatalities in 2023 keep pace with 2022 at 14 to date, state officials are gearing up for Operation Dry Water, a nationwide campaign pushing boater sobriety awareness and education with a heightened focus during the July Fourth holiday period.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency said the holiday weekend means an increase in boater activity that will be met with an increase in enforcement of BUI and operator laws, according to an agency news release issued this week. Officials note a BUI can involve alcohol and other intoxicants in a boater's system, and law enforcement will be watching for violators.
In 2022, Chickamauga Lake had the most boating deaths with 13, according to the state agency.
"Chickamauga always has the most reportable incidents. However, Percy Priest is a close second," agency spokesperson Mime Barnes said Wednesday in an email. "Both are busy."
New boat owners are still streaming to lakes and rivers, an increase in interest officials believe was linked the pandemic, Barnes said.
"We've continued to see an upward trend in boating registrations," she said.
With July 4 falling on a Tuesday this year, the holiday period will be a little longer than usual, beginning at 6 p.m. Friday and continuing through midnight July Fourth.
"Impaired operation is a 100% preventable crime that our wildlife officers take seriously each time they patrol our waterways," agency Boating and Law Enforcement Division Lt. Col. Matt Majors said in the release. "There will be no warnings given. If you are found to be operating a vessel impaired by our officers, you will go to jail."
OPERATION DRY WATER
To support the enforcement and education initiative, state wildlife officials are partnering with the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the release states.
Operation Dry Water was started by the administrators' group in 2009 as a campaign to draw public attention to the dangers of boating under the influence. Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in recreational boater deaths, according to officials. Sun, wind, noise, vibration and motion intensify the effects of alcohol, drugs and some medications.
As of July 1, BUI penalties will align with DUI laws in terms of jail time, fines and loss of boat operating privileges, according to state officials. The new law additionally clarifies that officers can seek a search warrant for blood should someone refuse the implied consent portion of the law. For a first offense in Tennessee, the penalty is at least 48 hours in jail and a year's revocation of driving privileges.
Under Tennessee and federal law, a boater is presumed to be under the influence of alcohol if the concentration of alcohol in the bloodstream is 0.08% or higher.
In 2022, 102 BUI arrests were made, according to the report.
Barnes said BUIs are closing in on that number already with 71 BUI arrests.
BUSY WATERWAYS, LOTS OF INCIDENTS
The number of registered vessels in Tennessee grew by more than 5,500 from 2021 to 2022, notching a total of 254,741, but a far cry from the most vessels registered, in 1999, at 314,620, according to the agency's 2022 Tennessee Boating Incident Statistical Report.
A total of 134 reportable incidents — those involving death, a missing person, an injury that requires or should have required treatment beyond first aid, or property damage of $2,000 or more — was down from 145 in 2021, according to the report.
State data show most incidents were from a collision with another vessel, and the primary cause was the careless or reckless operation of the vessel, according to the report. The most likely time to be involved in an incident was between noon and 8 p.m. on a Saturday. The leading age group to be involved was 46 to 50 years old.
In fatalities, 2022's 29 deadly boating incidents exceeded 2021's 21 but wasn't as high as 2020, when 31 people died while boating on Tennessee waters, the report shows. Deaths in 2020 — the first year of the pandemic — had taken a huge jump from eight fatalities in 2019.
The weather forecast appears to be a mixed bag, calling for a sunny sky and high temperatures with a reasonable chance of rain and thunderstorms each day throughout the holiday weekend, according to the National Weather Service.
BOATING SAFETY TIPS
Before you go
— Take a boating safety course; Tennessee's boating handbook is available at tinyurl.com/29u8p2ar.
— 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
TENNESSEE BOATING ALL-TIME HIGHS
The state's boating high marks in the 57 years since the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency was established, 1965-2022:
— Most fatalities: 47 in 1973.
— Most injured: 173 in 2004.
— Most overall incidents: 222 in 2006.
— Most registered vessels: 314,620 in 1999.
Source: Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency 2022 Tennessee Boating Incident Statistical Report