On Independence Day 2020, as a MAGA armada of 100-plus boats sped across Tennessee’s Old Hickory Lake, one Trump supporter who wasn’t taking part in the parade was about to get a taste of the chaos that ensued.
“I’m a seasoned captain. I’ve been in big waves,” Tommy Gravelle told The Daily Beast. But this was different. “If I knew there’d be that big of waves, I would’ve never left the dock.”
Rapidfire crests—waves that came in too fast for a simple pontoon boat to recover—overtook the front of the vessel. Seats got tossed into the water. The frothy foam nearly reached the captain’s chair. Gravelle was about to scream for his family to abandon ship, but he decided to rev the engine, cut through the next swell, and turn around.
The insurance company considered the vessel totaled and cut him a check.
“We got on the boat for a family day on the lake, and it ruined the whole day,” he said. “It was unorganized really. I think these people all meant well, they didn’t understand what was going on.”
It’s been a year since the Trump flotilla phenomenon swept through the nation’s lakes and bays. Law enforcement agents, rally organizers, and boaters spoke to The Daily Beast about how these events often got out of control, causing more crashes and near-misses than previously known. In Tennessee alone, the state’s database shows that Trump flotillas made up a third of all “congested water” accidents there last year.
National figures aren’t available that identify events as Trump flotillas, but a state-by-state review of incident reports in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Texas showed that most accidents never made the news.
Unlike the average holiday regatta, however, where alcohol is blamed when people jump off moving boats or fall out while peeing over the side, the main culprit at Trump boat parades is the sheer choppiness of the water.
George Birdwell, an investigator with Tennessee’s Wildlife Resources Agency, said law enforcement agents have grown to dread working these events.
“You sit in your boat and get tossed around. It’s not an enjoyable part of our job,” he said. “Big boats show up, and they try to go slow. But they’re still throwing a big wake, and small boats show up too, and they have to deal with those large wakes.”
No incidents were covered by news reports of these parades in Tennessee, but The Daily Beast tracked down four examples in as many rallies simply by requesting accident documentation from the state.
On Sept. 5 on Ft. Loudoun Lake, David Thomas lost his 22-foot, $22,000 SeaRay boat when it was overtaken by the relentless series of wakes, according to an incident report. A dozen people had to jump overboard and get fished out by parade-goers and first responders.
His boat experienced “extremely rough and high water created by other vessels that were mostly participating in the parade,” the report said.
That same afternoon, 140 miles away, a massive flotilla made its way downstream on South Holston Lake. As they squeezed through a bottleneck on the lake, an unidentified boat made an aggressive left and started pulling in too close to Travis Brown’s 19-foot MasterCraft, according to that report.
Brown made a hard left turn himself to avoid it, but that sent him into yet another boat. By the time Brown turned back on track, the stern of his boat nicked Teddy Street’s 20-foot Sylvan vessel, decked out in American, Confederate, and Trump flags. The report estimated the starboard hull damage on Street’s boat at $2,600.
At Tims Ford Lake on Sept. 12, 66-year-old Rana Beasley injured her back when she was violently tossed about when an onslaught of waves from the parade hit the boat she was on. The pilot, Steven Tuthill, had just pulled out of the marina and tried to stay close to shore, but the waves kept coming. An ambulance rushed Beasley to a nearby hospital, according to a law enforcement report of the incident.
“There was a significant amount of boat traffic in the area because of a permitted boat parade that had occurred earlier that afternoon,” that report said.
In Oklahoma, the state’s public safety department reviewed four Trump boat parades at The Daily Beast’s behest and identified two separate incidents on Lake Eufaula that resulted in boats sinking. Neither had been previously publicly reported.
The Daily Beast sent public records requests to nearly a dozen states. Many were still searching through files as of publication of this story, including state agencies in Florida, California, and Texas, as well several county sheriff’s offices in Minnesota. Agencies required us to identify the date, time, and body of water where a boat parade took place in order to search records, meaning the results are far from comprehensive or complete.
It’s difficult to track the frequency of these accidents because some government agencies claim to be missing records of publicly reported disasters. One docked boat sank into the St. Croix River in Wisconsin during a Labor Day weekend parade there, according to the local CBS Minnesota station, but the state’s natural resources department said it has no log of an incident there that day.
The vast majority of the parades we reviewed took place on dammed bodies of water managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issues permits. But it did not respond to questions or provide data.
Captain David B. Mackey, a professor at the Mass Maritime Academy, stressed that boats should be going at 5 miles per hour or slower—alternating between idle and turning the engine off entirely. And he said speeding parader-goers were to blame for damaging his own family member’s rental boat in North Carolina recently.
“The bottom line here is, poor seamanship. If they’re doing this and running around, they don’t know what they’re doing. Every boater is responsible for their own wake. If they do damage to another vessel, they’re responsible. If they do damage to the shore, they’re responsible,” he said.
Austin Collins, who organized one Trump flotilla on Sept. 12 at Oklahoma’s Lake Tenkiller, said he set strict rules to keep boats close together, single file, and slow. But as the lake widened, boaters started speeding around each other. Those that went too fast turned around, creating wakes that bounced off the others.
“I was trying to prevent racing down the lake. It wasn’t a race, it was a parade,” he said. “I kept on my normal pace… I think most people just took off.”
Boat safety enforcement officers in Wisconsin and Minnesota said the waving of giant flags posed an additional particular challenge for boaters, as it reduced visibility on the water when it was more congested than normal.
“When you have boat parades like rallies, the energy there creates a different vibe. People standing in parts of the boat where they’re not supposed to, flags that may limit visibility for the operator of the boat, and if there’s loud music, bright sun, maybe alcohol involved… all these factors contributed to dangerous situations,” said Rob Crafa, the waterfront director at the State University of New York’s Maritime College.
The Labor Day weekend boat rally in Lake Travis, Texas, last year served as the best known example. Five boats capsized at that Trump parade, with the distress calls all coming in during a 15-minute stretch.
Jared Green lost his new, 20-foot ski boat when it sank in the Willamette River in Oregon, due to the wake from passing Trump supporters. Green had turned off his motor and wasn’t able to turn it around and face the incoming waves, he told investigators. He and his six passengers were forced to jump in the water, and it capsized in about 15 seconds. The Daily Beast obtained the incident report, which blames “the volume of boats on the water, and a boat parade going on.” The paperwork doesn’t identify the parade.
To this day, the “beautiful boaters”—as the former president enjoys calling them—continue to be a source of pride and affirmation for Donald Trump, so much so that he even incorporates them into his baseless arguments that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
According to two people familiar with his private remarks, Trump has in recent months specifically cited the boaters as supposed evidence for why it was “impossible,” in the former president’s words, that he lost to Biden.
“He’ll say [something along the lines of], ‘Look at the crowd sizes, look at the enthusiasm, look at all the boaters, look at all the votes I got,’ and talk about other signs of the great support he has across the country, when discussing how it doesn’t add up,” according to one of the sources who’s repeatedly talked to Trump about the 2020 race since Biden’s inauguration.
As The Daily Beast reported last year, the then-president was so enamored by the images and videos of his diehard boating supporters that he bizarrely asked his political aides, “Are we polling the boaters yet?” and kept asking to see more videos and updates on “the boaters.”
Multiple senior Trump officials have told The Daily Beast that they made a point of showing the then-president videos of the boaters as a way to lift his spirits. The boat parades were never formal campaign events, but Trump encouraged the celebrations several times on his now-deleted Twitter.
With summer 2021 now in full swing, the former president is still on the lookout for the MAGA boat parades, and hopes to see many more of them flourishing in the Biden era, according to a source with knowledge.
In May, when various Trump boaters went out on the water to celebrate Memorial Day weekend in Florida, the ex-president did not let the occasion go by without some words of encouragement.
“Wow! I hear they have thousands and thousands of boats parading in Jupiter, despite the fact that they tried to cancel us,” Trump said in a statement from his office. “Everyone is having an incredible time.”
During the event, a number of the boats could be seen decorated with banners and signs imploring Trump to run for president again in 2024.
And every Trump boater who spoke about their experience at a rally said they’re already working on bringing them back.
“Hell, I might have one later this year,” said Collins, who organized a flotilla in Oklahoma. “I think I’m going to come up with a different reason. Maybe a fallen soldiers rally.”