The recent You Tube Video that someone posted up of the old Coast Guard Crew at Lake St Clair doing some boating under the influence reminded me of how some things just don’t go together.
If you’ve had a drink, don’t get behind the wheel of your powerboat. It’s that simple. As far back as I can remember, alcohol and boating have quite unfortunately gone hand in hand. Summer vacation, just off work, chilling at the beach or lake, fishing the day away— alcohol had always been part of the boating scene. Through all of this, and year after year, the United States Coast Guard has published reports full of statistics showing how alcohol is consistently ranked in the top five primary contributors to boating accidents and fatalities. When I worked as a Coast Guard boarding officer and small boat coxswain on Michigan’s Lake St. Clair in the early ’90s, we aggressively patrolled and enforced newly enacted federal boating while-intoxicated-laws. In short, we stopped everyone. This enforcement strategy generally was viewed by the boating public as too aggressive and as an infringe menton the rights and freedoms of the U.S. boating public. The boating public might have been right, and people are certainly entitled to their opinions. But after many long and brutal nights patrolling Lake St. Clair and dealing with the consequences—including recovering the bodies of children—of boating under the influence, the“outrage” over our aggressive enforcement from the intoxicated boaters only fueled our resolve to get intoxicated operators off the water.
My Coast Guard comrades and I saw it all, from the ridiculous to the tragic. Drunken teenagers full of liquid courage often thought they could fight us and win. One guy was so drunk that after crashing his boat and watching it sink to the bottom of the ship channel, he still begged me to take him and his vodka to Gull Island so he wouldn’t miss the party. These were the“good” stories because these people survived. Others were not so lucky, like the innocent father of two who took his two boys fishing in a small vessel that was run over at high speed by a go-fast boat with an intoxicated driver behind the wheel—all perished. Then there was the 12-year-old girl, taking a nap in the cabin of her parents’ boat, who died when an intoxicated operator drove right through it. And then there was the young lady who died when her intoxicated companion drove his boat right into a break wall. She was ejected, but not before taking the windshield with her, we I arrived on scene EMS had taken both victims to the hospital, but my boarding team member did find her lower jaw laying in the boat. These firsthand stories are horrible and graphic. I wish they were rare. They’re not. I wish they were the only ones I have. They’re not.
Here are a few basic facts. One drink is equal to about 0.020 blood-alcohol content (BAC), and it takes about one hour after you stop drinking to reduce or remove the same 0.020 BAC from your body. A BAC of 0.080 is recognized nationally as the legal limit for intoxicated operation— anything higher and you’re “legally drunk.” But what most boat operators do not realize is that even at the low BAC level of 0.020, motor skills,cognitive thought, and decision making are greatly affected. And in my experience, a BAC level of 0.050— still below the “legal”limit—is very dangerous for a powerboat operator. At this level you may still believe you have motor function and are not negatively affected. The reality is at 0.050 BAC you are more likely to make bad choices, take risks you would not normally take, and believe you are“just fine.” Bad news, all around. And by the way, a 0.050 BAC does not get you off the hook legally if something bad happens on the water. Take care enjoy the summer and have fun. Just leave the booze or whatever else you may be compelled to engage in for the after party at home or on the dock.