Just over halfway through the year, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has already worked an unprecedented fifth fatal kayak incident.
Near the end of July, a 27-year-old Ooltewah man became the latest casualty in the grim statistics. According to rescue officials, he drowned in Harrison Bay State Park while swimming and playing on a kayak with his girlfriend.
He was not wearing a life jacket.
That’s not uncommon, despite all the warnings and safety campaigns launched by the TWRA. Awhile back I was hiking at David Crockett State Park and saw several kids – all teens and under — kayaking in the middle of the lake. Of the dozen or so, only two or three were wearing life jackets. Among those not wearing a life jacket was a youngster who appeared to be around 10.
At the boat-rental office, life jackets came with each kayak as part of the rental fee. There was no excuse for the kids not to have them, and no excuse for them not to wear them.
State law requires anyone 12 and younger to wear a life jacket on most recreational boats when the craft is moving, and one life jacket must be aboard the boat for each passenger. But regulations regarding kayaks are fuzzy, and enforcement is random at best.
Equally vague are regulations regarding proper lighting for kayaks after dark. The rule requires a light of some sort to be aboard the kayak, visible 360 degrees. Could the dim, barely-visible glow of a cell phone or pin light fill the requirement?
Until relatively recently there was no great need for in-depth kayak regulations. There weren’t many kayakers, and most tended to stay close to shore.
That’s not the case nowadays.
Kayaking popularity has exploded across the state, and kayakers are venturing far away from shore. It’s not uncommon to see a kayaker padding across Percy Priest Lake.
Kayaking across sprawling, heavily-used lakes is dangerous for a number of reasons: a storm can blow up quickly and catch the kayaker far from shore. Also, since a kayak sits low on the water, it can be hard to see from a distance. A fast-moving speed boat or watercraft rider can be on top of it in an instant. (A flag is required to be mounted on a staff on each kayak, but the flags are small and not easy to detect at a distance.)
During the peak summer months, area lakes are churned to a froth by boaters and water skiers, and the waves can be treacherous for tipsy kayaks.
Paddling a kayak seems simple, which prompts many newcomers to take one out without any training. One kayak company representative suggests trying out a new kayak in a swimming pool, or in at least a calm, shallow cove.
Part of the training should include how to climb back into a kayak after a capsize. Waiting until you capsize in deep, choppy water is not the time to try to master the difficult maneuver.
Whatever the cause – insufficient or unclear regulations, lack of training, individual carelessness – the rise in kayaking fatalities and injuries is alarming. Just a few years ago a kayaking fatality was virtually unheard of in Tennessee, then suddenly in 2016 and 2017 there were five.
That number has already been matched this year, with a lot of summer to go.
Larry Woody is The Democrat’s outdoors writer. Email him at [email protected]