Play by the Rules when Paddling or Beware the Consequences (i.e., More Rules!!!)

By Eric Burnett

“In the late afternoon on August 30, 2016, a group of eight kayakers set off from the dock at West 44th Street in New York City for a guided tour along the Hudson River. The intended route was south along the waterfront of midtown Manhattan, then southwest down the river. As the tour passed the New York Waterways ferry piers at West 39th Street, a commercial passenger ferry backed out of its berth, then turned west to head toward New Jersey. The kayak tour guide attempted to signal the ferry captain by waiving his arms, but the captain later told investigators that because of the glare of the setting sun he did not see the paddlers in time to avoid colliding with them. Three kayakers, including the guide, were injured in the collision—two of them seriously. The ferry captain alerted authorities and used his vessel and crew to help rescue the kayakers. New York Waterways did not learn until several hours later that all kayakers had been rescued and accounted for.”

That’s the beginning of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Safety Recommendation Report of 2016.  Recently the State of Florida considered legislation requiring boater education for personal watercraft.  Why does that concern you as a paddler? Let’s investigate some of the issues and consider the reasons that the NTSB and Florida are even concerned about this.

Granted, if you never paddle on Chickamauga Lake/Tennessee River, some of this may not affect you but if you ever take your WW boat to the lake and play around it very well could in the future.  So far I have NOT seen that WW kayaks , and SUP’s are excluded from this discussion so read on.

According to the 2015 Recreational Boating Statistics published by the U.S. Coast Guard consider these figures:

-Eight out of every ten boaters who drowned were using vessels less than 21 feet in length

-Where data was known, the vessel types with the highest percentage of deaths were open motor boats (45%), kayaks (12%), and canoes (11%).

-Where instruction was known, 71% of the deaths occurred on boats where the operator did not receive boating safety instruction.

After a decade of working with the US Congress, the Coast Guard has not been able to obtain the authority to require boater safety education.  The Coast Guard believes that further efforts would likely not be successful. Therefore, at its spring 2016 meeting, the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators have advised the Coast Guard to actively support state initiatives aimed at implementing boating safety education laws.

This initiative is not new however.  In 1992 the National Boating Safety Advisory Council first addressed safety issues regarding commercial and recreational vessels sharing the same waterways when it issued a formal recommendation to the Coast Guard. The developed plan would incorporate the needs of all waterways users and balance the sometimes competing demands.

Of course there are many pros and cons to this topic. The “con” side includes many pragmatic points and questions.  Some have stated that this is akin to the Federal/State Governments requiring bicyclists (that share the road) to receive standardized instruction for biker safety. There is also some doubt as to whether the state or federal government can realistically deal with the number of canoes and kayaks, and maybe even SUP paddlers that would have to receive education and registration. Reciprocity issues exist as well with some states not having any program, while other states require education. Then of course there’s the issue of what some say is really the driving issue, revenue for the states.  (The Georgia boating education course costs $19.95 online. The Tennessee certification is birthday based and costs $29.50).  The Tennessee boater education study guide is free to read at:

Another discussion revolves around “user pay/user benefit” in which several points are made.  Proponents say that the paddling community uses material benefits such as docks, ramps, and rest room facilities that incur cost in construction, maintenance, and staffing.

As you can imagine, groups such as private outfitters, guides, and even the ACA are wary of these discussions, taking into account the financial and day to day impact it would have on their paddlers. Locally, law enforcement on the lake and Tennessee River falls to the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department and the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA).  Although the Coast Guard has a buoy tender stationed in Chattanooga, and has a presence here, I am not aware of any enforcement, as best as I can tell.

Have you ever heard of a nun buoy or can buoy, and why red and green? I think we, as a paddling community, should train ourselves just as a matter of personal safety, in these issues involving navigation, right of way, and communication.  We paddle with barges, the River Gorge Explorer, and countless larger and faster craft that cannot stop quickly. Boats of our size are difficult to see for a variety of reasons including our diminutive size, large  boat’s bows that can obscure paddlers, fog, sunlight glare, and no radar signature.  There are a few things that are clear, all boats are subject to inspection, all navigation rules apply, white lights are required during periods of low visibility, and life jackets must be worn by persons under 13 years of age.

At this writing it is unclear whether the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency Boating Division,  Coast Guard, or Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department are involved in any discussions that would immediately involve local paddlers in Tennessee in the near future.

In Tennessee recently Trot Line rules for fisherman and their impact to paddlers have made headlines.  Two different user groups both vying for the same rivers.  Each has certain rights and each group must respect the other, however, it gets politically challenging in the details.  Follow ACA Tennessee for the latest on these issues.  Where might they lead?  More rules and possible implementation of fees for paddlers … both outfitters, private boaters, all all the many recreational kayakers across the state.

These sites and publications served as a source for the above information. If you are interested in further reading:

American Canoe Association position on kayak registration:

Tennessee Boating Laws:

Tennessee Paddlesports Laws

Mandatory Boater Education for Paddlers (Florida), online article

NTSB Safety Recommendation Report

Stand up paddle boards are considered a vessel by the Coast Guard:

American Canoe Association, Critical Judgment, Understanding Kayak and Canoe Fatalities

American Canoe Association Tennessee State Director