TWRA boating officers Dustin Buttram and Barry Baird have seen an increase in paddle sports on the Tennessee waterways they patrol. Paddle crafts are for rent at many reservoirs and public areas and it’s a fun way to enjoy the outdoors. However many paddling for the first time go out unprepared. With four paddle craft fatalities in 2016, officers hope to reduce this in 2017.
Infrequent or new paddle craft users typically do not see themselves as a vessel that needs an understanding of boating safety and state laws.
Any person born after Jan. 1, 1989 must successfully complete a boating safety education course in order to operate any powered vessel. Paddle craft users are not required to complete a course, but knowing the law is still vital for a safe excursion. “Most rental companies do a great job informing paddlers,” said TWRA Officer Baird. He continued, “It’s that paddle craft users don’t always recognize the importance of safety and laws. It’s disturbing to see people at risk and unprepared.”
Officers Baird and Buttram have stopped many paddle vessels to educate and bring them to compliancy with state laws. A typical violation is simply having improper lighting at night. Buttram shared, “Go above and beyond with lighting. It will keep you safe. Even when you’re compliant, do more.” State law requires all paddle crafts to exhibit a white light or lantern after sunset or during times of restricted visibility. “Colors mean something on the water. They are a form of communication. Paddle crafts must have a white light and no other color,” said Officer Baird. He continued, “Many just simply wear a headlamp and this is just not sufficient for other watercraft traveling at a higher rate of speed to see from behind.”
Another violation Officers Buttram and Baird see is the lack of a personal floatation device. “The majority of deaths in Tennessee could have been avoided if boaters were wearing a life vest. The hardest part of our job is seeing family members grieve over something avoidable,” said Officer Buttram. Many boaters believe it just won’t happen to them or that they can reach their life jacket if their boat is overturned.
Officer Buttram reminds paddlers, “There’s a lot of free information out there on boating safety. Check TVA’s water levels, flow rates and dam generation schedules before heading out. Be prepared for fast moving waters and currents.”
Both officers agree that they want all boaters to have fun but safety must be a priority. For more information on boating safety or to find the 2016 Boating Incident Statistical Report visit tnwildlife.org.