Officers Cracking Down on Lights for Paddlers

As darkness falls, it easy to see how a boater would find it difficult to spot an unlighted or poorly lighted kayaker. Obviously it becomes even more critical when complete darkness falls. (Photo: Richard Simms)

It has happened to most longtime boaters. It is after dark and you are speeding along the water at what feels like a safe speed. There is moonlight so it seems as if you have decent visibility. Then suddenly, off your starboard bow, a dark shadow appears. You try to back down but the dark shadow flashes by your boat just feet away. Your heart pounds as you realize you just avoided a serious collision.

Maybe it was a buoy, maybe it was a log or maybe, these days, it was a paddleboarder or kayaker.

That is what concerns Tennessee wildlife officers, the men and women charged with enforcing the state’s boating laws. They say these days, with a massive increase in interest in paddling sports, they are seeing more and more paddling violations.

Hamilton County Wildlife Officer Joe McSpadden said, “We want everyone to have a fun, safe time on the water. That means after sunset or, even in times of limited visibility such as fog or rain, each vessel [including paddlers] must exhibit the correct lights.”

TWRA Boating Officer Barry Baird demonstrates a proper white light that must be displayed on a paddlecraft after sunset. (Photo: Richard Simms)

Friday evening McSpadden and Boating Officer Barry Baird conducted an on-the-water demonstration of proper lighting for a paddler. As darkness fell, Officer Baird sat offshore in a kayak. Slowly but surely his craft became more difficult to see except for the flash of his bright yellow paddle. As the darkness grew deeper, even those bright yellow paddle blades disappeared and Baird’s craft was almost invisible – until he flipped on a bright white light.

“For paddle sports it’s a little different [from motorized vessels],” said McSpadden. “Every paddler must have on the vessel a white light. A white headlamp, a white flashlight or especially a white lantern that shines 360 degrees, all the way around is probably optimal.”

Officer Joe McSpadden says that green or red lights are NOT legal on paddlecraft. The lights used by paddlers after sunset must always be white. (Photo: Richard Simms)

McSpadden emphasized that the light must be white. Unlike on motorized vessels, green or red lights on paddlecraft are not legal, and can be especially problematic.

“On a stationary paddlecraft boaters could confuse a red or a green light for a reflection of a red or green buoy on the water and they may actually head toward those thinking they’re heading for a secondary channel when they’re actually headed for a paddleboarder,” said McSpadden.

There were four paddlecraft fatalities in Tennessee in 2016. There has already been at least one in 2017. Most are due to paddlers not wearing a PFD.

“The majority of deaths in Tennessee could have been avoided if boaters were wearing a life vest,” said Officer Baird. “The hardest part of our job is seeing family members grieve over something avoidable. Many boaters believe it just won’t happen to them.”

Any person born after January 1, 1989 must successfully complete a boating safety education course in order to operate any motorized vessel.  Paddlecraft users, however, 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 Officer Baird. “It’s that paddlecraft users don’t always recognize the importance of safety and laws. It’s disturbing to see people at risk and unprepared.”

Officers have also seen situations downstream from TVA dams when the current is relatively light and paddlers head downstream. Then TVA increases generation at the dam, substantially increasing the river current. Paddlers may then have a very difficult or impossible time making their way back upstream. That was the case when a story about Chattanooga firefighters rescuing five “bikini-clad” UTC students went viral.

Officer Baird 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.”

McSpadden said when paddleboarding and kayaking first became very popular, officers often issued warnings.

“When paddleboarding first started getting really popular, the Agency wanted to be ‘informative’ and we haven’t written a lot of citations,” said McSpadden. “But in the last year or two we have started writing a lot more citations to people who do not have a PFD onboard or have a correct type of light on board that paddleboard or kayak.”

McSpadden added, however, “Our main concern is safety. Regardless of the law concerned and the penalties involved, nothing replaces a family losing a loved one.”

Go here for Tennessee Paddlesports Laws.

Go here for the entire Tennessee Boating Handbook.

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