Boating Under the Influence 

Boating Under the Influence 

Boating is a great way to enjoy the outdoors with family and friends, but the excursion can quickly turn dangerous when it includes partying and drinking. Did you know that a boat operator becomes even more impaired by alcohol than a car driver?  Yes, operating a boat can create a type of “boat hypnosis,” making alcohol consumption even more hazardous. These factors include:

  • Vibration
  • Sun and wind
  • Engine noise
  • Glare
  • Water motion and spray

Within a few hours, these factors can influence and slow the boat operator’s reaction time almost as much as a certain amount of alcohol, even if alcohol was not actually consumed. If the operator has been drinking alcohol while driving the boat, the effects will be intensified, creating an even more hazardous situation with dire consequences. 

Alcohol Consumption Can Cause Recreational Boating Fatalities

Drinking alcohol strongly affects your ability to process information and can even slow your normal reaction time. While on land, drinking too much alcohol is bad enough, but in the water, it may quickly turn deadly, and you may face potential penalties.  

If an intoxicated person falls overboard while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they may not have the ability to swim to safety. 

The impaired boat operator drinking alcohol may go too fast or oversteer the boat, crashing or capsizing it and causing property damage or boating fatalities. 

The drowning death of actress Natalie Wood is a tragic example. The mother of two young girls fell into the cold water in 1981 while trying to get into the boat’s dinghy.  

Had she been sober and not under the influence of alcohol, Natalie would have been highly unlikely to get that close to the water in the first place, especially not alone and in the dark. However, the alcohol she had consumed led to her tragic, untimely, and probably preventable death. 

Alcohol, Boating, and the Inner Ear

Becoming drunk is dangerous enough out of the water because someone may engage in foolish and hazardous activities while under its influence. But once in the water, death is much more likely than for a sober person. 

Alcohol can disturb inner ear function, causing temporary hearing loss. The inner ear is also responsible for balance and orientation. This is partly why alcohol can cause dizziness and stumbling due to a lack of depth perception. 

While on land, we don’t depend on the middle ear to tell us up from down because we can see the difference. However, in the water, a drunk person with a malfunctioning inner ear may become confused and unable to tell if they’re upside down because of impaired depth perception, making them unable to rise to the surface in time to breathe. 

Boating, Alcohol, and Drugs

Being drunk and without normal balance doesn’t mix well with the unstable, rolling motion of a boat on the water. 

The Coast Guard reports that in fatal boating accidents, over half involved a capsized boat or victims falling overboard.

It’s federally against numerous laws to be under the influence of alcohol while driving a boat. This is called BUI or boating under the influence and can result in jail time. BUI laws have the same legal definition and penalties as that of many states: .08 percent blood alcohol content or higher and the risk of jail.  

Boating on a recreational vessel creates the illusion of being safer than driving on land because there are typically far fewer people. 

Normal motor function, balance, vision, hearing, reaction times, and judgment are all needed to safely operate a boat and play water sports. However, it’s these factors that drinking alcohol and being intoxicated affect the most.  

An alcoholic beverage, being a diuretic, causes fluids to leave the body. This can lead to visual problems like dry eye, further disabling the boat operator by potentially causing distorted vision.

Marijuana and Boating

The active, intoxicating compound in marijuana, THC or tetrahydrocannabinol, is chemically classified as a mild hallucinogen. THC is a depressant, meaning it slows brain and central nervous system function. 

Capable of profoundly affecting judgment, THC makes boating potentially unsafe. THC’s effects tend to be dose-related but may be unpredictable. Even small amounts may be enough to skew operating judgment and slow reaction times. 

Marijuana directly affects vision, too. It causes changes in the pressure of the fluid inside the eyeball called the vitreous humor. This change in pressure can cause temporary but significant blurry vision. 

CBD or cannabidiol is chemically different from THC and doesn’t cause intoxication because it doesn’t work on receptors in the brain. While there is still a legal gray area, CBD derived from hemp and not marijuana plants (even though it’s chemically identical) is federally legal. 

Federal Law and THC

As of this writing, all marijuana products, regardless of local state laws legalizing its use, are not legal at the federal level. While law reform may come soon, currently, using marijuana anywhere is a federal offense and is against the law. 

Using, possessing, or being intoxicated by THC while boating is a form of BUI and a crime. 

Although local authorities will leave you alone if THC is legal in that area, you may be arrested by the Coast Guard for marijuana possession or use.

The Coast Guard: A Word to the Wise

While you’re boating, you are under the authority of the Coast Guard. Unlike the police on land, the Coast Guard does not need a warrant or probable cause to investigate you for a BUI. They do not need to have any suspicion of illegal activity or exigent circumstances.  

The Coast Guard can demand, not request, to board your boat for any reason or for no reason and inspect it at will, by force if necessary, and you must comply. This applies to both United States jurisdiction and international waters. 

If they discover illegal activity, they can and may arrest you.  

Since marijuana is still federally illegal and the Coast Guard is a federal entity, it’s not hard to see how the discovery of any THC products aboard your boat could result in your arrest on federal THC possession charges. 

Dangers of Drunk Boat Operators With Minor Experience

Besides affecting judgment and reaction times, impaired boat operators may not realize just how impaired they are. This is part of alcohol’s effects on the brain, allowing the person to be unaware of any danger.

The danger is increased because most boat operators don’t have much experience. A person may operate their boat for less than 110 hours in an entire year, compared to the daily driving of a land vehicle. 

This lack of boat operation experience may contribute to boating accidents just as it would for a car.  

High BAC Levels Can Cause a Swimming or Boating Accident

Swimming while drunk risks your safety because alcohol dilates the blood vessels. This influence of drinking alcohol creates a false sense of warmth and may lead to hypothermia when the individual fails to exit the water timely as a sober person would. 

A boat operator with a blood alcohol concentration of .10 or higher may be up to 10 times more likely to die in a boating accident than someone sober or with a lower BAC. Of course, the impaired boat operator also puts their passengers, drunk or sober, at risk. 

A blood alcohol content level of .10 is only slightly above the legal driving BAC .08 limit in most states. Someone with a BAC of .10 may not even appear to be intoxicated at all. Alcohol or drugs can lead you and others to believe that you’re completely normal and safe to operate a boat when you’re not. 

Boating and Responsible Drinking: Protect Against a BUI

Operating boats safely requires concentration, a fast reaction time, and a clear mind not compromised by alcohol or drugs. 

The current legal federal limit for BAC is .08 percent. Those operating boats above this face a federal offense punishable by at least a $1,000 fine. Be advised that a law enforcement officer may deem you incapable of safely operating your boat even at lower BAC levels. This is because alcohol doesn’t affect everyone the same way. 

For the best mix of fun, water, and alcohol consumption, limit your drink intake to one drink per hour and avoid operating a water vessel. This is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or one shot of distilled liquor such as rum or whiskey. 

Anything exceeding this is typically risking a BAC over .08 percent.

Avoid Drinking and Boating

At the end of the day, the safe limit for alcohol intake while boating or operating a water vessel is unknown and likely varies by individual. For 100 percent safety for both you and your passengers, stick with soft drinks, flavored water, and non-alcoholic beer or virgin cocktails instead.