Smith Mountain Lake in 2021 had more boating accidents than any other body of water in Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources’ 2021 boating incident summary.

It was the second consecutive year with such a result. The figure was almost double other places with high incident rates, including Lake Anna and the Chesapeake Bay.

Boating accidents at Smith Mountain Lake hit a recent high of 19 last year, one more than in 2020. One big reason: A significant increase in boat traffic since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, according to Sgt. James Slaughter of the Department of Wildlife Resources.

“It’s really become a place of destination,” Slaughter said.

In 2020 and 2021, Smith Mountain Lake has seen unprecedented crowds. Slaughter said a large number of boats were active on the lake daily. In previous years, the activity was mainly limited to weekends.

There had been a substantial drop in crashes in 2019, with just 10 recorded, but 16 in 2018. Slaughter said bad weather over several weekends helped reduce the number of incidents in 2019.

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Slaughter said it took some strategic planning on the part of conservation officers to ensure they maintained a consistent presence on the lake. Officers often have to split their time between lake and land patrols during hunting seasons.

Statewide, boating accidents finally plummeted last year after rising steadily for the past five years. They hit a 10-year high of 110 in 2020 before dropping to 89 last year.

The number of deaths fell slightly across the state in 2021, to 19, after matching a 10-year high, 21, in 2020. Authorities also recorded 21 deaths in 2016.

At Smith Mountain Lake, officers recorded one boating-related fatality in 2021. Last February, a motorboat operator fell overboard shortly after launching from the access facility to the Penhook boats. Hypothermia contributed to the death, according to reports.

The top three contributing factors reported for 2021 accidents were operator inexperience; no proper supervision; and speed or proximity violations. Slaughter said he often sees each of the contributing factors while patrolling the lake.

“There are so many things that distract people; that combined with a lack of experience,” Slaughter said.

Boat sales are increasing alongside the growing popularity of the lake. Slaughter said some boaters have yet to learn how to navigate the lake. He also worried about former boaters who might return to the water after going months or years without piloting a vessel.

“Driving a boat is a perishable skill,” Slaughter said.

Distractions are another major concern for Slaughter. He considers cell phones to be one of the greatest. Boat operators often hold them back when operating their craft at high speed, he said.

Phones — now equipped with GPS — are often used for navigation, Slaughter said. It used to be that boaters would stop and pull out maps to get their bearings. Most boaters now check their phones while boating, dividing their attention between the phone and the task at hand.

Slaughter said conservation officers were already increasing patrols on the lake as the weather began to warm, drawing people outside. He said crowds were not at the same level as in 2020 and 2021, when traffic started to increase significantly as early as March.

If that trend continues, Slaughter said, 2022 could be a more typical boating season, in which activity doesn’t fully ramp up until Memorial Day and most boat traffic occurs on weekends.

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