Keeping our waters… Dry?

Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Jacob Manire poses for a staged photo of him performing a Breathalyzer test. Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in boater deaths. Be part of Operation Dry Water by making a pledge to never boat under the influence. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class David R. Marin)

Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Jacob Manire poses for a staged photo of him performing a Breathalyzer test. Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in boater deaths. Be part of Operation Dry Water by making a pledge to never boat under the influence. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class David R. Marin)

It’s a beautiful day out, so grab some alcohol, see how many people you could get to climb into the convertible and drive around for a while!

Sound ridiculous? Well, it is!

So why is that scenario so different when it comes to boating?

“Alcohol consumption while boating is common,” said Dennis Sens, the Coast Guard’s Mid-Atlantic boating safety program specialist. “There is no prohibition on passengers enjoying alcoholic beverages, but when it comes to the operator the issue is very clear.”

While it’s not illegal to operate a vessel with an open alcoholic beverage aboard, an individual will be arrested and charged with boating under the influence if operating a boat or personal watercraft while impaired.

“In the hot sun, just a few beers are compounded by the action of the boat on the water,” added Sens. “People become disoriented and unaware of what they are doing and can quickly lose control of the situation and that’s what we’re fighting.”

In many aspects boating can be more difficult than driving a car. A boat is more susceptible to the forces around it making it pivot, sway and rock on every axis. Unlike a car, a boat doesn’t have a steady hard surface to grip to come to a stop.

“About twenty percent of boating fatalities are related to alcohol use,” said Sens. “In the last two years boating fatalities have ranged from 560 to 610. You’re looking at approximately 100 boating deaths that can be attributed to alcohol each of the last two years.”

Because of how common alcohol consumption is while boating, members of the Coast Guard, local and state agencies work year-round to educate boaters and enforce boating under the influence laws in an effort referred to as Operation Dry Water. Operation Dry Water’s mission is to reduce the number of alcohol-related accidents and deaths through increased awareness.

“Protecting the public goes to the heart of our mission,” said Col. George F. Johnson IV, Maryland Natural Resource Police superintendent. “Alcohol and drugs can have a profound effect on a boater’s judgment, balance, vision and reaction time.”

A Coast Guard petty officer and a civilian pose for a staged photo of someone being arrested for boating under the influence. Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in boater deaths. Be part of Operation Dry Water by making a pledge to never boat under the influence. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class David R. Marin)

A Coast Guard petty officer and a civilian pose for a staged photo of someone being arrested for boating under the influence. Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in boater deaths. Be part of Operation Dry Water by making a pledge to never boat under the influence. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class David R. Marin)

The national limit for blood alcohol content while boating is .08. Operating any boat, from canoe to large ship, while under the influence of drugs and alcohol is illegal in all 56 states and territories. Penalties include fines, jail time and loss of boating or even driving privileges.

According to the Coast Guard’s Recreational Boating Statistics 2014, 108 boaters died and 248 were injured in 277 accidents where alcohol was the known primary contributing factor.

If an operator is involved in a boating accident that results in a fatality, the legal consequences are very stiff, said Sens. Just like driving a vehicle. The laws are clear and are not any lighter for someone convicted of operating a boat versus a vehicle.

“We’ve had innocent victims who are boating and had no alcohol consumption,” recalled Sens. “There was a couple and their dog, cruising Smith Mountain Lake

and enjoying their day on the water when a drunk individual, operating a vessel at an extremely high speed hit their boat and killed the couple and their pet.”

In the Smith Mountain Lake case, Mark F. de Tournillon was sentenced to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to two counts of operating a watercraft under the influence of alcohol.

In another high-profile case, former Maryland delegate Don Dwyer was ordered to pay almost $92,000 to one of several boaters injured during an accident, of which Dwyer was convicted of drunken boating.

“Sadly, one impaired boater’s poor decisions can have a ripple effect, harming passengers and people in the water and on other boats,” Johnson said. “Operation Dry Water makes it clear that [there is] no tolerance for alcohol- or drug-impaired boaters.”

Although it may be common practice to have drinks while underway, the Coast Guard and it’s partner agencies are working to educate the public on the importance of having a sober operator, all in an attempt to make operating a boat while intoxicated seem as obviously ridiculous as driving a car while under the influence.