• Published
  • By Torch
  • AETC Safety
A man nearly two times over the legal limit for blood alcohol content killed one of his best friends in a drunken boating crash last year. He crashed his powerboat into the shoreline, ejecting all three occupants.

Then a personal watercraft driver with a with a blood alcohol content that would have gotten him arrested for drunken driving on a highway slammed into a tube carrying a 7-year-old boy. The man pleaded guilty to negligent homicide, a crime punishable by up to two years in prison.

At least 15 people were injured when two 28-foot boats traveling in opposite directions collided in a narrow, heavily trafficked channel of a river. One man drowned, and two others were seriously injured. Alcohol was involved in the mishap.

Each year hundreds of lives are lost, thousands are injured, and millions of dollars of property damage occurs because of preventable recreational boating accidents on U.S. waterways. More than a third of those accidents have some sort of alcohol involvement. Too often pleasure outings turn tragic. You -- as a boat operator, passenger, or concerned individual -- can make a difference.

It's a Different World on the Water
In the marine environment, motion, vibration, engine noise, sun, glare, wind and spray intensify the effect of alcohol and drugs. These "stressors" cause "boater's hypnosis" or fatigue and dramatically affect a boat operator's coordination, judgment, vision and reaction time.

Alcohol can decrease a person's ability to handle a boat in many ways. As a depressant, alcohol goes straight to the nerves, blood stream, and the brain. As recreational boaters, it's hard enough to remember all the rules, regulations, boat handling techniques, etc., while lucid. A few beers to quench the thirst in a rapidly dehydrating body intensifies the effects.

There's hidden danger too. Common prescription medications -- like those for heart or blood pressure - could possibly have side effects that can be multiplied by environmental stressors. So boating under the influence, or BUI, is a factor even for those who don't drink or use dangerous drugs. If you are unsure or have questions about your medications, contact your physician.

Levels of blood alcohol or medications that would have little impact on land can potentially cause a much greater degree of impairment for the operator of a boat.

That's one reason BUI is a clearly identified contributor to approximately 34 percent of fatal boating accidents.

How Can Boating Under the Influence Affect Me?

Your peripheral vision, night vision, focus and ability to distinguish colors (particularly red and green) diminish.

Your inner ear can be disturbed, making it impossible to distinguish up from down if you fall in the water.

A physical sensation of warmth may make it easier to fall victim to hypothermia.

Your cognitive abilities and judgment deteriorate.

Your balance and coordination are impaired.

Your reaction time decreases.

A boat operator with a blood alcohol concentration above 0.10 percent is estimated to be more than 10 times as likely to die in a boating accident as a sober operator. Most states and the federal government have a BAC limit of .08 percent.

U.S. Coast Guard data shows that in boating deaths involving alcohol use, over half the victims capsized their boats and/or fell overboard.

Alcohol can also be more dangerous to boaters because boat operators are often less experienced and less confident on the water than on the highway. Recreational boaters don't have the benefit of experiencing daily boat operation. In fact, boaters average only 110 hours on the water per year.

Enforcement and Penalties
It's illegal to operate a boat -- any boat, from a canoe, rowboat, or personal watercraft to the largest vessel -- under the influence of alcohol or dangerous drugs. The U.S. Coast Guard and local law enforcement agencies cooperate to enforce stringent state and federal laws. Penalties can include large fines, suspension or revocation of boat operator privileges, and even jail terms.

If you are determined to be operating a vessel while intoxicated, the Coast Guard may board your vessel, arrest you, detain you, terminate your voyage until you are no longer intoxicated, or turn you over to state or local authorities.

The Coast Guard and the states cooperate fully in enforcement to remove impaired boat operators from the waters.

In waters that are overseen solely by the states, the states have the authority to enforce their own BUI statutes. In state waters that also are subject to U.S. jurisdiction, there is concurrent jurisdiction. That means if a boater is apprehended under federal law in these waters, the Coast Guard will (unless precluded by state law) request that state law enforcement officers take the intoxicated boater into custody.

When the Coast Guard determines that an operator is impaired, the voyage may be terminated. The vessel will be brought to mooring by the Coast Guard or a competent and un-intoxicated person on board the recreational vessel.

Depending on the circumstances, the Coast Guard may arrest the operator, detain the operator until sober, or turn the operator over to state or local authorities.

Tips for Avoiding Boating Under the Influence
Boating, fishing and other water sports are fun in their own right. Alcohol can turn a great day on the water into the tragedy of a lifetime.

Consider these alternatives to using alcohol while afloat:

Take along a variety of cool drinks, such as sodas, water, iced tea, lemonade or non-alcoholic beer.

Bring plenty of food and snacks.

Wear clothes that will help keep you and your passengers cool.

Plan to limit your trip to a reasonable time to avoid fatigue. Remember that it's common to become tired more quickly on the water.

If you want to make alcohol part of your day's entertainment, plan to have a party ashore at the dock, in a picnic area, at a boating club or in your backyard. Choose a location where you'll have time between the fun and getting back into your car or boat.

If you dock somewhere for lunch or dinner and drink alcohol with your meal, wait a reasonable time (estimated at a minimum of an hour per drink) before operating your boat.

Having no alcohol while aboard is the safest way to enjoy the water. Intoxicated passengers are also at risk of injury and falls overboard.

Spread the word on the dangers of BUI. Many recreational boaters forget that a boat is a vehicle, and that safe operation is a legal and personal responsibility.


Information courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard