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Tailgating at Tennessee: Where the Vols blow the competition out of the water

“I’m, sailing, away...”

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

While it’s been decades since Tennessee football was nationally and authentically relevant, the tailgating scene in Knoxville hasn’t missed a beat.

And, on its own, that sentiment tracks, to a degree. Regardless of the on-field product, folks will always enjoy the pregame party. Family, friends, food, with the football sustaining, at times, as the “effect,” following the tailgate’s lead as the “cause.” Oh, yeah. And then there’s the beer. Lots and lots of beer. One might say there’s boat loads of beer, even.

The appeal derived from the combination of factors mentioned above is rather ubiquitous and certainly not unique to the South, to Tennessee or to fans of Volunteer football. But tailgating at Tennessee does have a to-this-point unmentioned element that is unique. The Vols have the Vol Navy.

Neyland (pronounced “knee-land,” for you outlanders) Stadium is one of just three major college football stadiums accessible by water, as the south end of the Vols’ football pantheon is nestled up right up next to one of the banks of the Tennessee River.

Getty Images

The beginnings of what’s now known as the Vol Navy are strikingly relatable, even though the tradition’s origin dates back to 1962. The story goes, according to a history page on Tennessee’s official website, that former “Voice of the Vols,”/ Tennessee radio announcer George Mooney was so done with the gridlocked road traffic to and from the stadium on home-game Saturdays, that he decided to navigate his way to games on his small boat, via the adjacent waterway.

Given the sometimes clunky, squared-off aesthetic of some early ‘60’s model vehicles, I think it’s fair to say Mooney was thinking “outside the box,” here. Don’t bother booing me. I’ll show myself out, thank you.

Fast forward six decades, and one man’s explicit distaste for traffic has blossomed into something more than just an addendum to pregame social gatherings. “Sail-gating,” has entered the sports’ world vernacular, and in Knoxville for home games, anywhere between 200 and 400 boats, of all shapes, sizes, makes and models, cruise aquatically to Neyland to watch the Vols play.

Randy Sartin, USA Today

According to Vol Navy Boaters dot com, slots at the docks are dolled out on a first-come, first-serve basis and any craft, from a single-person, stand-up paddle board, to a 100-foot-plus-yacht, is welcome, provided each vessel obeys the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency’s rule for organization that no more than 13 ships may tie together in a single row.

In fact, it seems the only unwelcome entity here is the the otherwise unyielding, ever-extending clutch of bureaucracy. It doesn’t cost anything to join the Vol Navy, and there’s no applications or endless email threads or silly boxes to check on useless paper forms needed for existing or would-be Vol Navy members to partake.

“The VOL Navy is a loose knit community of boaters and people that love the water who congregate at the docks outside Neyland Stadium on home football weekends in Knoxville, TN,” the unnamed author of the Vol Navy Website wrote. “There is no formality to the way it happens, yet all who attend have a great time and treat each other as a family. It is really quite special.”

It took until 2002 for any sort of organization for the community to initiate, when the Vol Navy Boaters’ Association officially, literally and figuratively, launched. The site says membership has consistently increased since the group started its website in 2006.

Now, I don’t think Mooney ever envisioned what his boat ride to work, one born of convenience, would transform into, but there’s no doubt he fundamentally changed the way Tennessee fans tailgate. The Vol Navy adds a flavor to the pregame party that few other schools’ recipes can replicate.