"Boating Under the Influence"
Drinking on Your Boat--It Really Does Matter
On a delightful Chesapeake Indian Summer day last year, a
44-year-old male, a boater all his life, decided to try out a Parker
18 on the Rhode River. After a quick spin around a nearby cove
and safely back at the dock, he thought it was time for a shot of
vodka. It was 10:30 a.m. After about 15 minutes talking boats with his friends, this very
experienced boater took another quick trip in the Parker. The boat, powered by a 90-hp
Honda, performed perfectly as he maneuvered around the same cove again, this time at a
higher speed. The operator was "getting a better feel for the boat," he said.
And although by then, as he later admitted, he was getting a buzz on," he brought the
boat into the dock--deliberately and almost overcautiously--without incident, despite the
alcohol. That called for another drink and when he took the Parker out for a third time,
he "was really starting to feel the booze," as he confessed afterward. "I
was pretty confident that I could handle it but I had to concentrate hard on what I was
doing," he confided to friends several days afterward. "If there were any other
boats around, I didn't notice them and I never realized I'd hit that buoy. But I didn't do
any real damage, anyway."
Witnesses later said that when this man pulled the Parker into a
slip on the cove, the port quarter hit the dock hard. The operator, now rather flustered,
backed down and tried again. Once inside the slip the second time, he attempted to reverse
the engine to stop but got confused. He revved the engine in forward instead and ran the
bow up on the dock. Fortunately, there was no damage from this incident, either. Despite
his obvious impairment level, this boater wouldn't quit. Ashore with his friends again and
laughing sheepishly about his docking experience, he knocked back another shot of vodka.
By then, as tests would later show, this man's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) stood at
.11%, well over Maryland's .08% for legal intoxication.
Clearly, this boater was "operating under the influence." Or as
Officer David Scheler, of the Maryland Natural Resources Police
put it--using terms any jury would have understood--"This guy
was smashed." On any other day, Officer Scheler would have taken the boater ashore,
probably in handcuffs, for an accurate BAC test that would be admissible in a court of
law. And this otherwise responsible boater would have drunk his way to criminal
prosecution and a stiff fine. But this wasn't just any day and a boater who most people
would have agreed had no business being on the water, did. That's because he was one of
four BOAT/U.S. staff members who volunteered to test the influence of alcohol on their
boat-handling abilities for this special "Foundation Findings."
WATER IS A POOR CHASER
As more states adopt strict operating-under-the-influence (OUI)
laws that mirror stepped-up alcohol enforcement on the roads,
boaters are coming under increased scrutiny. Venturing out on the water after drinking,
even after moderate social drinking, can be very hazardous. According to the the U.S.
Coast Guard, alcohol is a major factor in as much as 50% of all recreational boating
The Coast Guard says a boat operator with a blood alcohol
concentration above .10%--the legal threshold in 38 states--is 10
times more likely to be killed in a boating accident than a boater
with a zero BAC.
No matter what the activity, alcohol affects balance, vision,
coordination and judgement. But in boating, a combination of
stressors like wind, sun, noise, motion and vibration can magnify
the effects of alcohol and even accelerate impairment.
Numerous studies have measured the effects of alcohol on
motorists but comparatively little scientific study has gone into
boating and alcohol. While it is possible to extrapolate data from
motor vehicle research, we wanted to find out, firsthand, how
alcohol would affect experienced boaters. And we wanted to see
what we could learn, at least anecdotally, from our test subjects'
own recollections of their performance stacked against data
collected by on-scene observers.
THE FLOAT PLAN
In this "Foundation Findings" test we designed on-water and
shoreside components in cooperation with the Maryland Natural
Resources Police (MNRP). The boat selected was the Parker 18 described at the beginning of
this report, actually a confiscated vessel used by the marine police for undercover
For the on-water segment, we put the subjects through three
exercises, a slalom course at a planing speed through six buoys, a
steerage-speed run through six more buoys placed in a zigzag
pattern, and a docking test.
For our "dock" we built a floating structure using sections of
four-inch plastic pipe configured as a single-loaded slip. The
dock, anchored adjacent to the test course, measured 10 feet
wide by 20 feet long. A MNRP vessel patrolled outside the cove
the entire time to prevent other boats from straying into the test
area. For our test subjects we selected two men and two women.
NAME YOUR POISON
We gave our test subjects a choice of vodka or rum, both 80
proof, straight or with water. A "drink" measured 1 oz. To
maintain a constant evaluation basis we adhered to a strict time
schedule, waiting 15 minutes after each drink to allow the alcohol
to get into the bloodstream.
Each test sequence started on shore with a breath meter reading
to establish blood alcohol concentration, and three Field Sobriety
Tests commonly used in law enforcement, all administered by the
marine patrol officers. These consisted of walking a straight line
nine paces and walking back, standing on one foot while counting
to 30 and the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test. In this test the
subject is asked to focus on the movement of a pen or some other object held just above
eye level. Involuntary eye movements indicate some level of impairment and failure on any
of these tests gives a law enforcement officer "probable cause" to detain the
Finally, each subject navigated the on-water course under the
supervision of an officer who commanded the boat between the
dock and control buoys marking the beginning and end of the
course. Test subjects took the helm at the first control buoy
although the officer held an engine kill switch at all times.
Afterward, the officer reported operator performance, as well as
observations on each subject's behavior.
For safety reasons, as well as to record data, we assigned a
"buddy" to each test subject. Their job was to ensure that the
subject ran through the test sequences in the proper order and
time allotted as well as to keep them out of harm's way. All
parties wore life jackets at all times.
After one drink, the BAC of our subjects, all of different body
types, ranged from .02% to .05%. Three of the four failed the eye exercise in the field
sobriety test, indicating that some people
show signs of impairment well before legal intoxication. All
subjects performed adequately on the water although two
maintained slightly erratic control over boat speed. And the same
two hit the dock.
With a second round of drinks under their life jackets--two
subjects had to have doubles for the alcohol to keep up with their
metabolisms--BAC ranged from .05% to .10%. This time all four
did poorly on the field sobriety tests yet each appeared more
relaxed and confident in the on-water test.
Following the third round of drinks (a total of four to five ounces,
depending on the subject), BAC ranged from .08% to .12% and
the field sobriety test showed that each was clearly inebriated.
Officer Shceler recorded that the subjects varied boat speed
greatly this time, taking very wide turns and overcompensating on
the helm. Again, two hit the dock and one hit a buoy.
Performance in all catagories after the fourth round of drinks
proved far worse. At this point, two subjects had to be removed.
The two remaining, a male and a female, had both reached .15%
BAC by that time, nearly twice the legal threshold in 17 states.
They got through the on-water course, but with great difficulty,
proving only that some boaters can physically manage to take a
boat out on the water, even at that level of intoxication. In reality,
they would be a serious threat to other boaters, their passengers
In the cold light of a later day, the test subjects and their observer
"buddies" gathered for a debriefing. Each observer noted that the
level of mental concentration the subjects needed in order to
compensate for the effects of alcohol increased markedly through
Each subject also noted that he or she began to lose track of
activities around them as BAC rose, at least until they neared
intoxication. This was very obvious to the observers. Interestingly, two subjects recalled
being aware that their peripheral vision suffered as BAC rose, too. At or beyond legal
intoxication level, however, all subjects acknowledged that they were neither very aware
nor concerned about activities around them. Observers also noted that as the day went on,
the subjects paid less attention to details like having their life jackets fastened
properly or whether their assigned buddy was with them. Each
subject noted that even at moderate BAC levels, any unforeseen
situations would have created problems for them in operating the
boat. Any variable--obstacle in the water, approaching vessel,
man overboard--that would have required a quick decision or
spontaneous reaction could have had dire consequences.
Most subjects agreed that the lag time "before the alcohol hits
you" can produce a false sense of security that could lull a boater
into drinking too much in too short a period.
THE SOBER TRUTH
Most boaters think of collisions as the greatest threat when
drinking on the water. Yet, according to BOAT/U.S. Foundation
for Boating Safety research, an estimated 75% of alcohol-related
boating accidents and injuries do not involve collisions. In fact,
falls on board or overboard, or missteps at the dock or getting in
the dinghy, are a much greater threat when drinking afloat.
It is important to note that the subjects in our test were boaters
who do not drink when operating their own boats. Of course,
they knew this was a test and that quite naturally prompted them
to concentrate harder on their activities than a boater who may
assume that it is okay to drink and operate a boat or one who
doesn't think twice about doing it. In addition, this test was
conducted under ideal, controlled conditions, conditions that the
average boater will seldom encounter on the water.
One of those controlling conditions was that everyone around the
skipper stayed steadfastly sober. But our entire test team came
away with a new appreciation for just how risky it can be for
anyone--skipper or passenger--to mix alcohol and water with a
With most of our "Foundation Findings" tests, we advise you to
try the product yourself. However, when it comes to alcohol and
boating, we ask you to take our word for it.
This "Foundation Findings" could not have been conducted
without the assistance of the Maryland Natural Resources Police.
The on-site team headed by Sgt. Wayne Jones, Community
Relations Coordinator, provided not only supervision and field
sobriety testing, but a wealth of real-world information about the
effects of alcohol.
Special thanks also go to Cpl. Wayne Avery, Cpl. Steve Jones,
Off. David Scheler and Off. Brian Noon of the Southern Region
Marine Patrol. Their experience, professionalism and good humor turned a long, demanding
day into a very worthwhile learning experience for everyone involved.
Reprinted with permission of BOAT/U.S.,
BOAT/U.S. Magazine, January 1999
As President and Founder of Boaters Against Drunk Driving,
I was vehemently impressed by the outstanding quality and effort
put forth by BOAT/U.S. and the Maryland Natural Resources
Police in preparing this article.
As a career police-officer in New Jersey and Florida, I vigorously enforced the laws
relating to driving under the influence. Through the efforts of the entire law enforcement
community, we created in the 70's and 80's an attitude where it was no longer socially
acceptable to drink and drive. My present efforts in BADD along with those of BOAT/U.S.,
federal, state, county and city marine patrol units across America, and other boating
safety groups are to create an attitude where it is no longer socially acceptable to drink
and boat. This is an attainable goal as we enter the new millennium, and one that we
should all strive for in the interests of safe boating.
Through the dissemination of educational information such as the
BOAT/U.S. Foundation Findings, Report #31, Alcohol and
Boating, I have no doubt that the boating community will
recognize this paramount safe boating philosophy and practice it
whenever enjoying our greatest natural resource,
the waterways of America.