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As more people head onto the water in East TN, officials urge boating safety

The weather is warming up in East Tennessee and across the state. That means more people may spend the weekend on the water.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Temperatures are expected to stay in the 80s over the weekend and during the rest of the week in East Tennessee. The warmer weather can mean people will head out on the water, exploring the state's several rivers and lakes.

However, as more people bring out their boats, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is urging people to follow the law and stay safe. They said that around 22 people die in boating accidents every year across the state.

"That may sound like a small number to some people, but that's 22 fellow Tennesseans or guests from other states that just went out for a day on the water to enjoy, just like all of us do," said Matt Cameron, a spokesperson with TWRA. "And they didn't make it back home."

The TWRA offers boating classes for anyone who wants to brush up on their skills and learn how to prevent injuries while on the water. One class will be in Jefferson City Christian Church from 10 a.m. through 3 p.m. on Saturday.

Boaters need to have a Boating Safety Education Certificate as proof that they completed the safety exam.

One of the most important lessons boaters need to learn, officials said, is not to mix alcohol and boating. A new law went into effect in the summer of 2021 that changed how BUIs are enforced across the state. Operating a boat while drunk now carries the same penalty as driving while intoxicated.

"When you add alcohol to the mix, people become unstable and they'll fall overboard, and they'll sit in places that they shouldn't and then they just take too many risks when they're under the influence of alcohol," said Cameron. "So by not using it at all, you're going to be a lot safer, for you and your passengers as well."

Business at the Volunteer Cove Marina on Mayville Pike quickly picks up in the summertime because it offers boat rentals. Manager Rob Coffey also said life jackets are the most important thing. The biggest concern they see out on the water is alcohol.

"People don't realize, they get out on the water, on the boat, in the sunshine, they don't realize that the alcohol hits them a bit different and a bit faster," Coffey said.

If your safety and that of everyone around you isn't enough to keep you from drinking and driving a boat — consider the law.

"Now it's the same ramifications if you get a BUI on your boat, it's just like getting a DUI in your car," Coffey said. 

Which comes with fines up to $2,500 and possible jail time. He also said Knoxville police, Knox County deputies and the coast guard has a presence on the state's waterways to prevent boating while intoxicated.

"There are police everywhere," said Coffey. "They're just trying to keep everybody safe so that's definitely something they're looking for now."

TWRA said it's not just the boat driver who can be in danger when under the influence of alcohol.

"We know we're supposed to have a sober operator, but we see a lot of people, even passengers, who have consumed too much alcohol will do things to put themselves in danger," Cameron said. 

The TWRA also said every person on a boat should have a life jacket, and they should wear them while in the water. Anyone 12 years old or under also needs to have a floatation device on anytime the boat is moving.

They also said boatowners should inspect their boat if it has been sitting stagnant since last summer. They should check it for leaks that could have developed, as well as mechanical parts of the vessel to make sure it's seaworthy.

The TWRA also recommended people bring a stocked emergency kit and marine-grade fire extinguishers on board. It is also against the law to swim around marinas, because of the risk of someone being shocked in the water.

Over the warm weekend, several other people could also plan to take their boat out for a ride. Lakes could be crowded, and so people should slow down and pay attention in no-wake zones.

National Boating Safety Week runs from May 21 through May 27, reminding all boaters to brush up on boating safety skills and prepare for the boating season.

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