Boating tragedy is grim reminder

A top TWRA priority is boating safety.

The recent boating tragedy on Pickwick Lake in which three fishermen lost their lives is a harsh reminder about the potential hazards of being on the water.

One careless moment or thoughtless act can be fatal.

I speak from experience. My fishing buddy almost drowned a few years ago. He was rescued by pure luck or divine intervention, whichever you choose.

More on that in a minute. Back to the Pickwick tragedy:

Two 15-year-old Obion County High students and an adult drowned while participating in a fishing tournament. According to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency which led the rescue/recovery effort, they were last seen when their boat entered the rushing floodgates of the giant dam.

The demolished boat was found down-river, and after several days of searching, the bodies were recovered.

It’s unknown why the boat went into the churning waters of the floodgates. Maybe the motor quit, and the boat got swept in. We’ll never know.

When I heard the news about the missing boaters, I wondered why they were out there to start with. The water was high and rough. Add freezing temperatures, and it was no time to have kids on the water.

I don’t want to be too judgmental; over the years I’ve foolishly fished in conditions just as dangerous. I once went out on a remote Canadian lake on a snowy, blustery morning when everybody else stayed in the warm cabin.

The wind began to howl, and I suddenly found myself plowing through 4-foot-high waves. I was soaked by icy water that threatened to swamp the tossing boat.

I managed to seek shelter in a nearby cove and waited out the storm. I was lucky. If I’d been further out from shore, I might not have made it.

Fishing buddy Bob Sherborne was even luckier after falling out of our boat on Old Hickory Lake one early-spring morning. I had gone to the parking lot to get the trailer, and Sherborne puttered out to tinker with the motor. The motor suddenly revved, causing the boat to spin and pitching him overboard.

The boat putted away, leaving Sherborne floundering far from shore in deep water and weighted down by layers of heavy clothing. Just before he went under, a boat — the only one in sight — rushed to his rescue.

Sherborne would have drowned, had that solitary boat not been in the vicinity and reached him just in time. He was saved by a miracle.

Unfortunately, there was no miracle for the three fishermen on Pickwick. Nor for the five others who drowned in boating accidents in Tennessee last year.

Boating mishaps and fatalities have decreased in recent years, thanks in large part to ongoing safety education and enforcement of regulations by the TWRA. But 2020 is off to a grim start. (Another tragedy was narrowly avoided when a boat with three passengers capsized on Percy Priest Lake.)

We’ll never know if the Pickwick incident was a result of bad judgment or bad luck, or some of both. But perhaps something can be salvaged from it: a reminder to boaters to be mindful of the dangers that constantly lurk on the water, where just one mistake can be the last one.

Maybe those lives lost will save others.

Larry Woody is The Democrat’s outdoors writer. Email him at

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