Awareness of and respect for laws that prohibit driving a car while intoxicated are commonplace among most, though certainly not all, people.
But what about drinking alcohol and driving a boat? According to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation:
“No one may operate a vessel on the waters of NYS while impaired or intoxicated through the consumption of either alcohol or drugs. New York law now prescribes heavy fines, imprisonment, and the suspension of operator privileges for violators.
“It is important to realize that on the water, even small amounts of alcohol may greatly impair one's ability to function in three critical areas: balance, coordination, and judgment. Compound this with such environmental stressors such as glare, heat, vibration, and engine noise, and you can become quickly fatigued, greatly slowing your reaction time. Your ability to judge speed and distance are also impaired which can limit your ability to track moving objects.
“Alcohol will also decrease your coordination. Simple tasks such as climbing a ladder to the bridge, or reaching for your sunglasses on the other side of the dash may become challenging. Your ability to survive should you find yourself unexpectedly immersed in the water decreases when under the influence. Alcohol will not only make it more difficult to reach for and put on a PFD (personal flotation device), it may also increase one's disorientation upon entering the water, reducing your chances of rescue.”
According to nysenate.gov, the Boating While Intoxicated blood alcohol content threshold was reduced in 2003 from .10 to .08. A new law that strengthened penalties for Boating While Intoxicated offenses by linking them to past drinking while driving offenses that involved a vehicle. A Boating While Intoxicated offense can land violators in jail for a year and leave them paying a minimum fine of $500.
Illustrating all of this is the tragic 2013 Boating While Intoxicated crash on the Hudson River that killed a bride-to-be and best man; and injured the groom-to-be less than a month before the couple’s wedding. According to Lohud/The Journal News, the friend of all three piloting the boat, who had “a blood-alcohol level in excess of 0.15 percent at the time of the crash, as well as cocaine metabolites in his system,” crashed into a barge during a night time jaunt on the river. The pilot of the boat was sentenced to two years in prison. The pilot of the boat crashed into a barge moored in the Hudson as part of the construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge even though the lighting on the barge created a visibility issue. This tragedy shows that boating at night, after drinking and possibly using drugs, can be made even more dangerous by waterway factors that include changing conditions, from wind and weather to a barge that may not have been there the last time the pilot had been out boating.
Obeying the law when it comes to summer fun and boating also involves things like life jackets, the speed of boats and where passengers sit on a boat. According to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation:
The speed of boats is typically restricted to 5 mph within 100 feet of the shore, a dock, pier, raft, float or anchored boat. Local laws can further regulate a boat’s speed within specific areas. All boaters should check with their local authorities. When no speed limit is posted, a vessel “must always be operated in such a fashion so as not to endanger others.”
As for a boat’s passengers, “overloading any boat will decrease stability and reduce performance.” A capacity plate affixed to the boat will detail weight and/or capacity restrictions on vessels less than 21 feet in length. In the absence of an open bow designed specifically for passengers, bow riding is extremely dangerous. A large wake or wave or sudden, sharp turn can throw someone overboard if they are riding illegally on the bow. Captains must insist that their passengers take their seat and stay in their seat while the boat is underway.
As for life jackets, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation says, “Every pleasure vessel, including canoes, kayaks and rowboats, operated upon the waters of NYS, must have on board one U.S. Coast Guard-approved wearable PFD for each person on the vessel.”
Vessels that are 16 feet long or bigger must also have a type IV throwable PFD. Regardless of the type of boat, all PFDs on board must be “serviceable, readily accessible, and of the appropriate size for the wearer. A serviceable PFD must be free of rot, tears, punctures, or waterlogging. All straps and buckles must be attached and fully functional. Readily accessible means that the PFD must be quickly reachable in an emergency situation.”
Lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, boats, family and friends can all make for plenty of summer fun. But if you’re not smart about things, or you ignore the rules, there will likely be consequences. Those consequences can be small, big, very big, and very big in a very bad way.
So have your fun. Enjoy the water. But be smart. Play by the rules. And return home safely.