Safe is Sober

We’ve all seen ad campaigns focusing on drunk driving, pleading with viewers to stay sober if they plan on getting behind the wheel of a car. Yet, somehow, that concept seems to elude countless boaters in Florida and beyond, where drinking and boating is becoming a serious problem. Safe boating requires unwavering situational awareness and a sharp mind, and impairment from alcohol makes operating a vessel difficult and dangerous for helmsmen, their passengers and fellow boaters nearby.

Quite frankly, it’s not a difficult concept to understand – if people know driving a car under the influence of alcohol can lead to morbid outcomes, what makes them think they can safely operate a boat in a similar state of mind? It seems simple, yet so many boaters ritualistically leave the dock and immediately begin drinking. I’m not here to be the “fun police” and tell you that drinking on boats is something you should never do, but let’s be smart about it.

As is the case for drivers operating a car, it is illegal for a person operating a vessel to have a blood alcohol level (BAC) of 0.08 or higher. This means that, just as if you were going to meet a few friends for a beer or two before driving home, you need to manage your alcohol intake very carefully. Law enforcement on the water is cracking down on drunk boaters, but trouble with the law is the least of your worries when you decide to take the helm under the influence.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs accounts for around 23 percent of boating fatalities. In 2019, alcohol was once again the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents, accounting for more than 100 deaths. This should tell you that drinking while operating a vessel is flat-out stupid.

As with anything else, there’s a balance that must be struck. I’m not telling you to keep your boat alcohol-free every time you hit the water but be responsible. If you know you’re going to have a few at the sandbar, make sure there’s another person on board who’s not only safely under the legal BAC limit, but is also qualified to operate a vessel. Drinking too much and then asking your brother-in-law visiting from South Dakota who’s never driven a boat in his life to get you and your passengers home safely in unfamiliar waters is not a good plan. Always have a pre-designated sober captain who knows what he or she is doing.

On the other hand, there are plenty of responsible vessel operators out there who choose to have a beer or two throughout the day and know their body’s limits and that’s okay. However, they must still exercise an abundance of caution in doing so. If you know it’s going to be time to head in soon, even if you haven’t exceeded the legal BAC limit, give yourself at least an hour or two drink-free before getting going. By the same token, make sure you are staying hydrated and nourished. Drinking in the hot sun can deplete you and lead to exhaustion, even if you’re not legally drunk.

As a vessel operator or captain, it’s also your responsibility to ensure a safe boating experience for your passengers. When drinking is involved, it’s probably wise that everyone on board, not just the captain, exercises caution, stays hydrated and doesn’t let themselves get too intoxicated. We’ve all seen those boats at the sandbar with spring breakers packed on board like sardines. Overcrowding a boat is dangerous on its own, but throw alcohol in the mix and the risk factor skyrockets. Passengers who are in “party mode,” let’s call it, tend to dangle their legs off the bow and gunnels while running and do plenty of other reckless things. As a captain or person in charge, you must keep them under control to ensure their safety. If you see that someone has clearly had too much to drink, don’t be afraid to be the party pooper and cut them off.

Whether your passengers are drinking or not, it’s recommended you stay off the water during the hours between sunset and sunrise. This is especially the case on weekends and holidays, when countless drunk boaters are recklessly operating at night without proper running lights. Everybody loves a sunset booze cruise but try to avoid high-traffic areas after dark. You can certainly control your own alcohol intake and keeping a safe boat is commendable, but there’s no telling who out there doesn’t abide by the rules. These irresponsible boaters present a danger to their fellow boaters and it’s best to just avoid them at all costs.

At the end of the day, boating is supposed to be fun. To some, having fun on the boat means having a few drinks and that’s fine, as long as the person operating the vessel stays below the legal BAC limit. Just always make sure that alcohol is consumed responsibly by all and it never becomes an impediment to safe passage.