Booze and Boats

Published in the July 2011 Issue July 2011

It was a family reunion: grandparents, parents, a host of brothers and sisters and others onboard the pontoon boat and all eyes were on the 16-year-old girl rejoicing in the incomparable sensation of riding a tube on a hot day on the Colorado River. Then, from out of nowhere, a drunk on a personal watercraft-who would later blow a .264 as the little girl lay dying on the deck of the boat, two Game and Fish deputies doing what they could to save her, to no avail-altered the family's world forever.

Booze in not only part of the culture of the Colorado River; it helped build the place. In the Colorado River building boom of the 1970s, construction along the Colorado River near Parker, and in the fast-growing boating Mecca of Lake Havasu City, Ariz. was fueled by the thirst for second homes in an area defined by hot weather, boating and partying.

So tolerant and happy to introduce neighboring California's youth to the party lifestyle that the state's legal drinking age was 19 until 1985. Bars like Sundance and Fox's and Hussongs had reputations at colleges in seven neighboring states, and conveniently, the boat docks were right outside. I was there: we would think nothing of motoring up, having drinks inside until we met up with a few new friends, and tearing into the sunset, cups sloshing in hand.

On a hot June weekend in 2005, law enforcement set up a BUI (Boating Under the Influence) sobriety checkpoint near Topock at the site of an alcohol-related quadruple fatality that bloodied the water a year earlier. The protocol was straightforward: officers attempted to stop every boat passing by, had a brief contact with the operator, and if alcohol use was apparent, administered field sobriety tests.

The day was more that an eye-opener or wake-up call for law enforcement: it was a revelation of epic proportions, so significant in the timeline of drinking and boating on the water that each of the three law enforcement officers I interviewed for this story brought up that weekend as though it were still fresh, five years later.

Officers stopped 170 boats and arrested 17 operators for drunkenness. The scene resembled an undercover Detroit drug sting on TV's Cops, with arrests taking place as rapidly as officers could process suspects. Things got so crazy that for much of the event, officers were too busy making arrests and conducting investigations to stop passing boats.

Next time you're in your boat, take a minute to process and extrapolate that reality in 2005: imagine every tenth boat you see being driven by a drunkard.

Before you cross off the Colorado River from your list of go-to spots this summer, consider the altered reality just five years later. At a sobriety checkpoint conducted in 2010 at the same location, eight arrests were made out of 240 contacts, a reduction of 200 percent compared to five years ago.

One drunk for every 30 steering wheels hopefully is not an acceptable number by anyone's standards, but it's still a remarkable turnaround in a five-year period. Behavior can be changed, and fear of arrest is certainly an effective lever.
Law enforcement credits the difference in prevailing attitude to two factors: public education directed at DUI enforcement and consequences, which has definitely changed the public mindset on drinking and driving; and a heightened presence of law enforcement on the water, along with a refinement of techniques and procedures that make officers more effective at recognizing impaired boaters and removing them from the water.

Apparently Lake of the Ozarks, which each year is among the finalists in the US Coast Guard's list of the nation's deadliest waterways, has not gotten the memo. Between July and September, Missouri State Water Patrol Officers made 330 stops: 58 percent of those operators were above .08 BAC.

A concentrated effort to reduce BUI and ever greater presence of law enforcement will, as it has in other areas, make a difference there. But at Lake of the Ozarks, as everywhere else, there is another factor at play, and ultimately it is the one that bears the most weight in what alcohol will or will not do on this lake and every other, and how many will die because of irresponsible use: It's choice.

Will you choose to drink while you drive your boat, and make a conscious effort to keep your consumption under control, and under the arrestable limit-which, incidentally, is actually .05 on the water, and not .08? (Arrest or not is the officer's call in the grey water area between .05 and .08.)

Will you drink to impairment, confident that although you are legally drunk (six beers in two hours will get you a .08 if you're a 200-pounder) you are in control, a better driver while impaired than the less experienced boater when he's absolutely sober?

The Lake Havasu Marine Association , through a series of billboards and other public media, advocates a third choice-one which has become, according to all three officers we interviewed, more prevalent than ever among the boaters with which they have daily contact: use of a designated operator who remains alcohol-free throughout the day.
The campaign will include strategically placed billboards at launch ramps, shorelines, and local businesses, bumper stickers, and an upcoming website. Perhaps most effective, local businesses like Pirates Cove and The Naked Turtle are among the first to show their support, providing free non-alcoholic beverages to designated operators.
Funding for the project comes from a source that at first blush, may seem at odds with the concept of consumption reduction: Romer Beverage Company of Kingman, the Anheuser Busch distributor for Mohave and La Paz Counties.
Dig a bit deeper into the equation and it makes a lot more sense. Company owner Chip Romer owns a Skater, and is an active part of the performance boating world. He has boated on Havasu and the Colorado River for more than 25 years.

"When the [Lake Havasu Marine] association came to us, as boaters and corporate citizens, the message just made sense," said Romer, who credits public awareness with the reduction in arrests for impairment. "It comes down to accountability for your actions. If you're going to responsibly enjoy an adult beverage on the water, that's fine. But do your part and try to involve a designated operator."
Romer is plainly not in it for the publicity: he repeatedly asks that his role in the program be downplayed or even remain unmentioned in the article.

I posed the question of mandatory designated operators to the vocal members of our Performance Boats forums-though implementing such a measure is clearly impossible and over-reaching, and suggesting it is tantamount to blowing a hole in the side of the Constitution.
The response was both predictable and surprising.

Right on cue, the drinkers in the crowd-those who openly consume on the water, and see nothing wrong with it-mostly consider the issue a non-issue.

"Nine out of ten think beers and boats go hand in hand, though one out of ten will say it publicly," responded one of our well-known, river-based forum members who has made no secret in the past of his imbibing while boating. "I think everyone agrees that drunks on the water is a bad thing. But enjoying alcohol responsibly doesn't make you drunk. Boating is safer than it has ever been, especially given the number of boats out there on the water. It's the cavalier attitude of `safety first' that has all but ruined this fine nation we live in. At some point you have to say enough's enough. For myself, I'd say .08 is about far enough."

A prominent judge said, on her website, that the average DUI offender drove legally drunk at least 30 times before being caught. In an environment with no designated lanes, no real traffic patterns, and high speed vehicles with no brakes, can't the same be said for boaters driving drunk?

Think about those you know who become regularly impaired. If they were asked at the beginning of the day if they planned to drink enough to blow a .08, do you think they would answer in the affirmative?

Or would they sound more like some of these forum members?
Note the repeated use of the phrase "a drink or two."

But is it ever really a drink or two?
"Remember the good ol' days when a law enforcement officer had a little discretion?" wrote one. "It's just another loss of liberty. Ten beers over five hours on a weekend at Havasu or the Parker Strip or lower Mohave is very different than 10 beers in some canyon on Powell or Upper Mohave on a weekday. Ten beers over five hours is very different in a blown jet boat or 700hp deck boat than in a small block Sea Ray. If the operator is [intoxicated], deal with it. If the operator seems okay and appears not to be a hazard to himself or others, let him go. Law enforcement officers are intelligent people-too bad law makers and lawyers aren't."

Astoundingly, this sentiment or versions of it are repeated ad nauseum.

A 200-pound boat driver drinking ten beers in five hours yields a blood alcohol level of somewhere between .011 and .013, depending on the source. Does anybody really want this guy behind the wheel of a Sea Ray, small block or otherwise?
Apparently, some not only think it's okay, but perfectly natural.

Overwhelmingly, our Performance Boats board members that responded feel it is okay to drink and drive a boat: 75 percent, 24 of 32, who voiced an opinion said so.

It brings to mind a YouTube clip, of a hammered crew aboard a tricked out Magic on a crowded Havasu weekend. The boat is loaded, and so is the driver-although he does pretty well in the verbal exchange with the officer who is now conducting a field sobriety test. The officer keeps the operator talking-because that is what they do, when they've stopped you and are trying to determine whether you are a candidate for BUI honors. The guy answers most of the questions pretty well, but you can tell he's had a few, probably more. The officer instructs him to touch his nose with his right index finger, then his left, then repeats the exercise. The guy's timing is a little off, but he does pretty well, definitely better than I would after two beers. Then they break out the Breathalyzer. The officers practically fall off the boat when they read it: a .32. "Point four-o is legally dead," one of them says, as he cuffs the guy.

The point is, you may be onboard with a driver who seems a little impaired, but okay. But is he really okay to drive an 80-mile-an-hour boat through the water's equivalent of a high-speed rush hour on a Los Angeles freeway?

The answer is no-because even if a drunk, who is accustomed to the effects of alcohol and used to performing in social situations while hammered out of his mind doesn't seem that impaired, he really is. A drinker takes more risks-that's not theory, that's just what alcohol makes you do. It makes you bolder-that's why a lot of people drink it. It affects your judgment. That statement doesn't even need backup, and if you drink a lot, your life experiences have already knocked on that door and you have answered it, probably more than once.

The guy who blew the .32 is the same kind of guy that was running up and down the water in 2005, and doing just fine-until he didn't, and somebody died.

"Actually seeing the effects of someone getting the entire length of the inside of their leg chewed off by a prop, and having a friend who ended up as a quadriplegic because of drinking and boating is the reminder I need," said one forum member, an alcohol drinker who now reserves cocktail time for after the boating day is done. "In neither case were they driving the boat, but the driver had been drinking."

"There are plenty of boat operators 100 percent sober and still FAR more dangerous than another with a drink or two in them," read one dissenting view that was repeated more than once. "Nobody thinks a hammered driver is a good idea, but there are many issues that need to be addressed and not already covered by existing laws."

Maybe-but let's get real. One or two drinks? People who drink on boats, by and large, don't drink one or two beers on a sun-drenched day of boating. Doesn't happen, not in the majority.

Alcohol often has an amplified effect on the water because of a documented phenomenon called "boater's hypnosis," a state of fatigue brought on by body "stressors" that include wind, sun glare, noise, motion from the water, and vibration. Boaters' hypnosis slows operator reaction time "comparable to that exhibited by an intoxicated person," according to a study conducted by the US Coast Guard.

Determining whether or not a boater is drunk has become more science than judgment call, thanks largely to a quick, painless, and highly accurate field test called the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus. The American Prosecutors Research Institute's National Traffic Law Center calls HGN "the most effective and reliable field test in existence."
Here's how it works: an officer takes a pointer (a pencil will work), and has the subject follow a slow, steady horizontal movement with his eyes. An unimpaired person will follow the movement smoothly, a drunken boater will not. Alcohol is a central nervous
system depressant, affecting higher and lower motor control systems. When intoxicated, a person's nervous system will display a breakdown in the smooth and accurate control of eye movements, which makes it impossible for the impaired boater to hold his eyes steady or move his view smoothly.

In most cases, this is the make or break test before officers break out the big gun: the Breathalyzer. It is the final word. And if a boater blows a .08 or higher, he's likely going to jail, whether there is a sober boater onboard or not.

"We really do our best to respect every boater's personal freedom and their right for recreation in public," Tim Baumgarten, watercraft program manager for Arizona Game and Fish, who patrolled the Colorado River and Lake Havasu for 29 years. "Everyone reacts differently to alcohol and alcohol impairment. I've arrested people who are completely incoherent with a BAC of .062. But if a person drinks often, an officer is likely not going to develop probable cause to make an arrest at that level. But this much is true: absent of all environmental factors, in a clinical situation, we could show impairment in anybody who is .04 or greater. That is the reality."

Law enforcement personnel are realists by trade, and Baumgarten doesn't expect the designated sober boat operator campaign to change his world in a major way. But he doesn't hesitate when asked if it will make a difference at all. "I believe it will. I've seen the results with the DUI campaigns, and public education works," he says.

Jim Salscheider, executive director of the Lake Havasu Marine Association, is determined to get the message out. "Drinking beer on the Colorado River is part of the culture, and you can have as much fun as you want," he says. "You just need a designated operator. It's required that you carry a fire extinguisher on your boat, a life jacket for each person in the boat, and a throw cushion or you get a ticket. It's our message that you need a fourth thing on board-a designated operator."

For more information on the Designated Operator program, log onto

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