Deadly Georgia boating incident raises awareness

A deadly boating accident last month on Lake Lanier near metro Atlanta served as a reminder of dangers on the water during the busy summer.


Thurmond Lake has fewer safety incidents than Lanier, and law enforcement officials say they’re patrolling the waters on high alert during the July Fourth week to keep it that way.

“Any holiday, we try to step up all of our efforts on BUIs and major safety incidents,” said Sgt. Doyte Chaffin, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources ranger who patrols waters in Columbia, Lincoln and McDuffie counties.

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, nine boating-related fatalities have occurred on the lake since 2001. One in 2007 involved alcohol or drugs, but it was unknown whether either came into play in three others.

As of Tuesday, 54 boating incidents had caused 22 injuries and five fatalities in Georgia this year. Rangers have issued 63 citations for boating under the influence, according to Georgia DNR.

One of those citations was to the driver of a fishing boat that collided with a pontoon boat on Lanier the night of June 18. Paul Bennett, 44, could be charged with homicide by vessel. Two brothers, ages 9 and 13, were killed.

The incident led Gov. Nathan Deal to call on state lawmakers Thursday to pass legislation that would lower the legal blood alcohol limit for boaters and hunters. The current 0.10 limit is too high, he said, and lawmakers should lower it to 0.08, the same legal limit for drivers.

The Corps of Engineers estimates 7.5 million people visit the 38,000-acre Lake Lanier each year. The lake is known for congested waters prone to accidents. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which reviewed incident reports from DNR, there has been an average of 45 boating incidents, 29 injuries and two deaths on the lake each year for the past decade.

On Thurmond Lake, officials say boating collisions and incidents are less common due to its size. Thurmond covers 71,000 acres and attracts an estimated 5 million visitors annually.

“We don’t have a congested lake. There’s plenty of space for people to go,” Chaffin said.

But rangers don’t downplay unsafe boating. Reckless driving, overloaded boats and life jacket violations are common, Chaffin said.

“Recreational law enforcement is tough. You have people out there that might not realize the dangers of what they’re doing,” he said.

Georgia and South Caro­lina DNR and the Corps of Engineers enforce safety and laws on the lake, which extends up the Savannah River straddling the state line.

On the South Carolina side, one boating accident resulted in injuries last year and one this year. Both were related to low water levels, which cause boats to run aground. Five occurred in Georgia, one resulting in death when a boat capsized in strong winds.

Georgia rangers have issued three BUIs on Thurmond this year, and South Carolina has issued two.

Georgia rangers tightly patrol popular areas at the lake, including Wildwood Park, Raysville recreation area and Mistletoe State Park. On holiday weekends, the Georgia division tries to staff waters with its six rangers. A regular weekend sees two or three on the water.

Sgt. Ron Talbert, a South Caro­lina DNR officer for McCor­mick and Edgefield counties, said his four officers will be on alert during the holiday week. He will add an additional boat to regular patrols during the Thunder Over Thurmond fireworks event on Saturday near McCormick, S.C.

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• Know the laws. Georgia and South Carolina regulations differ.

• Designate a sober boat operator.

• Take a boating safety course. Visit for course listings.

• Wear a life jacket. In Georgia, children under age 10 are required by law to wear one while aboard a moving boat. South Carolina requires them for children under age 12.

• Don’t overload the boat with people or equipment. Check for the maximum weight or number of people the boat holds.

• Use navigation lights at night.

• Watch your speed. Georgia law prohibits operation at speeds greater than idle within 100 feet of any vessel. In South Carolina, boats cannot run more than idle within 50 feet of anchored boats, docks or people.

Sources: Georgia and South Carolina Departments of Natural Resources

SLIDESHOW: Boater Safety