Officials: Waves, sunshine exacerbate alcohol’s effects on boaters

By: Kristyne E. Demske | C&G Newspapers | Published June 18, 2020

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METRO DETROIT — Take a peek inside many pleasure boats heading out on the lake and you’ll begin to notice a similarity.

Yes, they’ll all have life vests and happy boaters, but a majority will also include a cooler and snacks.

While most drivers would never dream of cracking open a cold one on the road, that isn’t necessarily the case with boaters.

“You can’t have open intoxicants in a car, but you can in a boat,” said attorney Ven Johnson, of Ven Johnson Law PLC in Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids. “You can see the laxity.”

While passengers are allowed to consume alcohol in a boat, there is a statute prohibiting the operation of a motorboat while under the influence of alcohol, which was passed in 1995, Johnson said.

The blood alcohol content limit is 0.08%. “If you are that or more, you are legally drunk and you will be arrested on the lake,” he said.

“To most of us, when you think boating, you think booze. You’re having fun, you’re chilling. Yes, you are out in the elements, yes, you are in unstable water. Add the sun into that, there’s no question that alcohol will often get into your system quicker and to a greater extent,” Johnson added.

Renee Yax, the public information officer for the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office, said that in 2019, the department’s Marine Division encountered eight boaters under the influence, 22 crashes, and 55 search and rescue missions on Lake St. Clair.

“The Macomb County Sheriff’s Marine Division encourages all boaters to have at least one designated sober person that can operate the vessel in a safe manner,” she stated in an email. “We encourage all boaters and passengers to stay hydrated. Dehydration will make you more fatigued and more at risk for a boating accident.”

The legal blood alcohol limit for boaters is the same as for drivers on the road, Yax noted, but the conditions boaters experience out on the water may lead them to experience the effects of alcohol more quickly than they would elsewhere.

“The glare and heat of the sun, along with the motion of the vessel caused by the wind and the waves and the noise and the vibration of the engine, have a large impact on your body that you (may) not even realize,” she said. “These natural stressors make you tire more rapidly when on the water, regardless of your age or level of fitness. Many boaters greatly underestimate the effect these stressors have on fatigue.”

Add to that the influence of alcohol and drugs — which can cause impaired balance, blurred vision, poor coordination, impaired judgment and slower reaction times — and boaters can experience even greater stressors on the water if they consume those substances.

That information is confirmed by the U.S. Coast Guard, which says the use of alcohol is involved in approximately one-third of all recreational boating fatalities.

The motion from a marine environment, vibration, engine noise, sun, wind and spray accelerate the impairment of a drinker on a boat, according to the Coast Guard, causing fatigue that hastens the decline of a boat operator’s coordination, judgment and reaction time when using alcohol.

A federal law prohibits boating under the influence, or BUI, and pertains to all boats, whether powered by man or motor, including foreign vessels operating in U.S. waters.

Data from the USCG shows that more than half of victims who died from a boating death involving alcohol capsized their boats or fell overboard. Because alcohol creates a physical sensation of warmth, a person in cold water may not get out before hypothermia sets in.

“A boat operator with a blood alcohol concentration above 0.1% is estimated to be more than 10 times as likely to die in a boating accident than an operator with zero blood alcohol concentration. Passengers are also at greatly increased risk for injury and death, especially if they are also using alcohol,” the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division website states.

Johnson said that police are out on the water looking for intoxicated operators.

“They will arrest you, put you in handcuffs. They will impound your boat,” he said. “It is a monster inconvenience, and it will be taken very seriously.”

With the annual Jobbie Nooner party coming to Lake St. Clair June 26, Johnson said those attending should be especially careful, both because of how alcohol can affect the boaters, but how it will affect their behavior as they spend time at the event.

The use of alcohol while boating is part of the culture, Johnson said, possibly because it wasn’t pursued by law enforcement in the recent past.

“When I was growing up, there was no drinking and driving statute (for boats). We didn’t always have sheriff boats, back in the day,” he said. “Now, I think it’s people ‘just having a good time,’ and they think that they’re not going to get caught.”

Johnson said the number of personal watercraft and children being towed on innertubes on the lake creates more opportunities for accidents.

“My deal is, if you’re driving the boat, the boat owner, (you) should have zero alcohol, plain and simple,” he said. “They have the Breathalyzer ... and the blood draw still applies to boats. It’s basically the same as it would be under the automobile law.”

The owner of a boat can also be held criminally responsible for another driver who is negligent or operating while intoxicated. Johnson said that those charged with operating a boat while under the influence face the same penalties as those charged with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence, and sometimes worse.

“There are certain judges that even on first-time offenses (require) jail time,” Johnson said. “Absolutely, it’s serious.”

In lieu of using alcohol on the water, the Coast Guard recommends taking along a variety of chilled non-alcoholic drinks and plenty of food and snacks. Wearing clothes that keep you cool and limiting time on the water to avoid fatigue is also recommended.

For those who do wish to consume alcohol out on the water, the Coast Guard recommends having a party at the dock, in a picnic area or at a boating club, and taking time between the consumption of alcohol and getting back in a boat or land vehicle. Those who dock somewhere for lunch or dinner and consume alcohol with their meal should wait a minimum of one hour per drink before operating their boat.

“I love having fun and enjoy my booze, (but) once you get behind that wheel, you better be sober,” Johnson said.