The Dangers of Boating Under the Influence

Boating under the influence could be the biggest mistake of your life.

Marine patrols and other boating enforcement agencies across the country will soon be participating in Operation Dry Water, an awareness and enforcement campaign initiated by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA). I could make a smart-aleck remark about how this would be a bad time to drink and boat, but the truth is there is never a good time.

A 2006 survey of college students (provided by NASBLA) noted that 45 percent of respondents had consumed alcohol while boating. College kids are, well, college kids, but drinking on the water has long been part of the boating culture, and that’s OK as long as the actual drinking does not involve the boat operator. It was encouraging to see that, among those respondents, 70 percent used a designated driver. That seems great, until you consider that three out of 10 partying boaters did not.

I don’t like to throw around too many statistics because they become just numbers, but here’s another one to drive the point home: 17 percent of all boating fatalities are alcohol related. Which is why drinking and driving a boat is such a colossally bad idea.

In all 50 states 0.08 is the legal blood alcohol limit, which is typically one drink or one beer or two per hour, depending on your weight. But, in planning your day, consider that alcohol affects you faster on the water.

The Dangers of Boating Under the Influence
The Dangers of Boating Under the InfluenceBoating Magazine

“You’re in an environment that’s hot and humid — and probably not drinking enough hydrating fluids,” said Lt. Seth Wagner, a boating safety coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). “The boat being in motion from the wind and waves already affects your balance, and alcohol only compounds that.”

There are so many other things involved with driving a boat, such as other boats coming from different directions at varying speeds, and if you’re impaired, it could all come upon you way too fast. You know how alcohol helps you shed your inhibitions in social situations? Well, it has the same effect behind the helm.

“When you’re drunk, you may take chances that you normally wouldn’t,” said Wagner. “You might feel a little braver than usual.”

This translates into impaired drivers running on plane in tight confines after dark, taking turns way too fast, or ignoring hazards to navigation. Impaired boaters may also forget to turn on their running lights, follow charts properly, or remember the appropriate signals for passing other boats.

OK, more numbers: In the FWC’s Boating Accident Statistics from 2012, the agency recorded 160 collisions with other boats and 148 collisions with a fixed object. Many of those involved sober drivers, which speaks to the need to be vigilant behind the wheel. (If you’re keeping score, alcohol was the primary cause in 24 accidents.) The report notes that falling overboard has been the leading cause of boating fatalities since 2003, so you could make the case for all passengers on board to practice moderation to maintain balance and good judgment.

With all of this, here’s what the smart choice would be: Even if you’re just a passenger, if you plan to spend the day on the water, keep the drinking under control. And if you plan on driving your boat at any point during the day, plan on sticking to Diet Coke.

For more information on Operation Dry Water and to sign the Never Boat Under the Influence Pledge, visit operationdrywater.org.