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Alcohol & BWI - Why we must get "BADD"

By Wayne Spivak, ADSO-CS 1SR
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

“Alcohol involvement in reported accidents accounted for 31 percent of all boating fatalities (page 31) – up five (5) percent from 1999. A Coast Guard study estimates that boat operators with a blood alcohol concentration above 10 percent are estimated to be more than 10 times as likely to be killed in a boating accident than boat operators with zero blood alcohol concentration.” – this according to the USCG 2000 Boating Statistics.

Sobering thoughts you would think? But, in many areas of the country, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Drinking and boating has been a way of life, ever since yachting and sailing became the pastime of the rich and famous. So too was drinking and driving, but we as a society have gotten “MADD’, and put some brakes on this rage, if not the acceptability of the concept.

According to Mother’s Against Drunk Drivers (, “Alcohol-related traffic deaths are on the rise and underage drinking levels have reached a plateau.” MADD was established by a group of women in California outraged after the death of a teenage girl killed by a repeat-offender drunk driver.

We, as a sport, need to get as ‘MADD’ as drivers have, and become “BADD’ in order to promote safe boating without alcohol. Why “BADD’? The Auxiliary and the Coast Guard are for Boaters Against Drunk Driving, which is why Boating While Intoxicated (BWI) laws have begun to find their way into many state laws.

Law Enforcement

More and more, local and state governments and the Coast Guard have begun to enforce BWI laws, and MADD themselves have begun campaigns in several areas. One such success story comes from Illinois. In 1998, MADD placed 17 banners in Illinois inland lake areas “No OUI Deaths.” The year before the program started, 11 such deaths were reported.

In many states, local authorities have tied a conviction for BWI to your driving record. This means that regardless of whether you’re driving a water-borne vehicle or a land-based one, the insurance industry will surcharge you for a conviction. Those who know people or have been previously convicted of this crime know that their insurance rates go into the stratosphere.

Some examples of law enforcement and/or laws are:

  • In May 2000, Coast Guard Station Ketchikan, Alaska radio operators received a telephone call from a Ketchikan woman at 8:15 p.m., reporting that an intoxicated 29-year-old, and a male companion consumed alcohol before boarding a 17-foot skiff for a voyage from Thomas Basin to Whiskey Cove on Pennock Island. “We want to emphasize that drinking while operating any type of vehicle, especially a boat, is extremely dangerous and can be deadly,” said Sue Hargis, the 17th Coast Guard District Recreational Boating Safety Coordinator. “We gladly welcome anonymous tips to help us stop intoxicated boaters from harming themselves and others on the water.”
  • In Florida, the law states “Is a criminal offense punishable by fines up to $2,500, imprisonment of up to one year, non-paid public service, and mandatory substance abuse counseling. The law provides for mandatory sentencing. If a drunken operator kills or causes serious bodily injury to another person, the penalty is five years in state prison and a fine of up to $5,000. By operating on Florida waterways, you are deemed to have given consent to be tested for alcohol if arrested for operating under the influence. Refusal to submit to a test may be used against you in court.”
  • In Tennessee, “…detection, apprehension and arrests for boating under the influence (BUI) are given top priority by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA). During 2000, TWRA law enforcers made 68 BUI arrests. In 1999, 73 BUI arrests were made. Until 1998, the average number of arrests was approximately 20 each year.” TWRA is making a very strong effort to address the BUI issue and these statistics indicate measurable success. According to Darren Rider, a TWRA Marine Investigator, the agency recently hired 25 part-time boating officers to work with the 38 existing part-time boating officers to help enforce “The Boating Safety Act of 1965.”
  • In Nassau County, New York, The Westbury Times, a local paper, ran this editorial in their June 15, 2001 paper, “…As with Nassau County’s tough laws against drunk driving, Nassau County has a zero tolerance policy against boating while intoxicated. Those who operate boats under the influence of alcohol will be arrested and may lose their boating privileges. This tough policy is preventing a lifetime of tragedy for potential victims and their families while ensuring safety on our waterways. We will not permit innocent victims to die at the hands of reckless and irresponsible boaters.”

Think before you Drink

So, how do you enjoy your time on the water, and still preserve the option to enjoy an alcoholic beverage? That’s easy. Use the same common sense you use when you are on land. If you want to indulge in alcoholic beverages, a) designate a non-drinking pilot, b) settle in for the night, and don’t move the boat (but be careful not to fall overboard) or better yet, c) wait until you get home.

We, in the Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary, want you to enjoy SAFE boating. And safety begins with being sober, having a properly equipped boat (if you’re not sure if your boat has all the equipment, ask for our free Vessel Safety Check [VSC]) and a properly trained skipper and crew.

For further training, a VSC, or more information, contact your local Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla or Coast Guard Station. You can also find us on the web at (Coast Guard) or (Auxiliary).

As Bob Dylan said, “For the times they are a-changin’.” From Alaska to New York, Florida to Tennessee, state by state, locality by locality, BWI has become one of “the” boating issues. Get caught drinking, and your pleasant day on the water will turn into months and months of heartache. Have a SAFE and SOBER boating season!