600-mile ride a floating family reunion

By Dennis Sherer
Staff Writer

Published: Friday, July 31, 2009 at 3:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 30, 2009 at 10:35 p.m.
FLORENCE - For George Rinehart, the Tennessee River 600 is more than just an opportunity to take a long-distance ride on his personal watercraft.

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Participants sit on their personal watercraft in the small auxiliary lock at Wilson Dam on Thursday during their 600-mile trip down the Tennessee River.

Matt McKean/TimesDaily

"To me, it's like a big family reunion. We have a lot of people who ride every year and we have all become close friends," Rinehart said, as he and other riders in this year's Tennessee River 600 waited to pass through Wilson Dam lock Thursday.
"Once someone makes the trip, they fall in love with it."
More importantly, the 600-mile ride from Knoxville to Paris Landing, Tenn., raises money for Children's Hospital in Birmingham and Chattanooga as well as Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
Since the annual ride began 13 years ago, participants have raised $143,475 for the organizations, said Dennis Beckley, ride organizer.
This year's ride, which ends today at Paris Landing State Park, will raise about $12,000. The ride started Sunday.
Beckley said the economy and fuel prices are what likely reduced the number of participants this year to 38.
"The economy is definitely affecting us," he said. "Last year, we lost 15 to 20 people to the high fuel prices. This year, fuel prices are down a little, but people are still worried about the economy. We're down about 10 people from last year."
This year's ride attracted participants from Washington, Texas and Southeastern states.
Rinehart, who lives in Pleasant View, Tenn., said nothing could deter him from the ride. He has been in every ride since it was launched in 1997. The Tennessee River 600 is the longest running organized ride for personal watercraft in America.
Rinehart said riders find it rewarding when they meet children along the route who are patients at the hospitals aided by the ride.
Another purpose of the ride is to promote personal watercraft safety and portray the vessels in a positive light, said Beckley, who lives in Knoxville.
"We have a safety course that all the new riders have to go through," Beckley said. "We want people to realize that not everyone who rides a personal watercraft is wild."
Dennis Sherer can be reached at 740-5746 or dennis.sherer@TimesDaily.com.