In past ages, drinking and still being able to drive, whether that be a car or boat, might have been considered a badge of honor in certain circles.  Today, thank goodness, it is considered reckless lunacy.  And things are worse on the water than on the land.  This column is about that.

Oh That Swaying Feeling

Often times, when you come in from a boat ride with the family, some might say, “I can still feel the swaying!”  If they happen to jump in the shower, it really gets intensified and they joke that they had to hold on to the shower wall to keep from tipping over!  This is clear evidence of the dramatic impact the marine environment has the body's sensory perception system. While boating, we are confronted with conflicting information from the eyes, feet and inner ear.  The horizon is constantly moving – up, down and sideways – as the boat moves beneath our feet.  Our conscious brain has no problem with intellectualizing this.  But the unconscious part of our brain is getting sensory overload.  This can result in reactions ranging from slight queasiness to absolutely debilitating nausea.

The marine environment is full of “stressors” – the Sun, glare, vibration – to name a few that are all pretty common out there.  Stressors intensify the effects of alcohol, drugs and some medications.  They can cause fatigue, reduced coordination, weak judgment and slow reaction time.  And forget about the vision of the St Bernard saving you from the cold by giving you brandy.   Alcohol makes the body more susceptible to the effects of cold water, not less.

Not surprisingly, all of this adds to boating accidents.   U.S. Coast Guard data shows that, in boating deaths involving driving under the influence, more than half the victims capsized their boats and/or fell overboard. Over 1 in 5 boating deaths are linked back to the use of alcohol.

The Law

Every state in the Union prohibits the operation of a boat while under the influence of alcohol.  The US Coast Guard, as a federal entity, enforces a federal law that prohibits Boating Under the Influence (BUI).  This law pertains to every vessel, foreign or domestic, operating in U.S. waters, as well as U.S. vessels on the high seas.  Penalties may include fines, jail, impoundment of boats and in some states the loss of boating and/or driving privileges. (see table below.)

Back in 2008, Operation Dry Water was started in partnership with the US Coast Guard, the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and partner agencies.  It is a national weekend of BUI detection and enforcement aimed at reducing the number of alcohol-related accidents and fatalities, and fostering a stronger and more visible deterrent to alcohol use on the water.  Zero tolerance is of course the posture, then and now.

Booze kills.

photo and table courtesy of USCG Boating Safety Division


Boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs could cost you:
– Someone else's life
– Your own life
– Your driver's license
– The time, expense and shame of an arrest
– A fine
– Boat repairs from an accident
– Property damage from an accident
– Medical treatment                                      

Essential Boat Operating Skills Adversely Affected by Alcohol or Drug Use
– Peripheral vision
– Night vision
– Inhibitions
– Ability to distinguish colors
– Cognitive abilities
– Judgment
– Balance
– Coordination
– Reaction time