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What should I know about consuming alcohol while we are boating?

Posted by on January 3, 2013

Alcohol consumption and cruising go hand in hand for many people.  A cold beer on a sunny day or a cocktail or glass of wine in the evening can enhance a nice day on the water.  But beware, there are specific laws that prohibit operating a boat while intoxicated and the penalties can be severe.

Washington State and British Columbia have similar laws.  It is not illegal to consume alcohol on board your boat and in Washington even the vessel operator can consume alcohol while driving a boat.  However, the penalties for intoxication are different.

An important fact to remember is that alcohol may affect you differently while you are boating.  Operating a boat requires constant attention to your surroundings and is more than just steering your craft.  Wind and waves can challenge your physical performance and exacerbate the normal effects of alcohol.  The marine environment can accelerate impairment because of the motion, vibration, engine noise, and elements of sun, wind and spray.   These, and other stress factors may impede coordination and exaggerate fatigue, lack of judgment, and impaired reaction times.  In some situations only about one-third of the amount of alcohol that makes a person legally impaired while driving a car is enough to make a person equally impaired while operating a boat.

In Washington State it is illegal to operate a vessel in a reckless manner or while under the influence of intoxicating liquor.  RCW 79A.60.040.  A person is considered to be under the influence if the person has .08 grams or more of alcohol per two hundred liters of breath, (breath test) or .08% or more by weight in the blood (blood test).  You are also considered intoxicated if you are under the influence of alcohol or any drug or under the combined influence of alcohol and drug(s).

Violation of RCW 79A.60.040 is a misdemeanor.  Penalties are provided in RCW 9.92.030 including incarceration up to 90 days and a fine fixed by the court.

In Washington, the law may be enforced by local or state officers or by the U.S. Coast Guard.  In state waters the Coast Guard may request that local law enforcement take the person into custody.  Additionally, law enforcement officers can terminate the voyage.  If so, the vessel will be brought to a mooring and the intoxicated person may be arrested, held until sober, or turned over to local officers.  If a serious marine accident occurs the Coast Guard is required by Federal Law to file a report of chemical drug and alcohol testing by urinalysis, blood test, or breath test.

The following chart is copied from USCG Boating Safety  and can be used to estimate intoxication.  For more information visit Operation Drywater.


Drinks Body Weight in Pounds Influenced
  100 120 140 160 180 200 220 240  
1 0.04 0.04 0.03 0.03 0.02 0.02 0.02 0.02 RARELY
2 0.09* 0.07* 0.06* 0.06* 0.05* 0.04 0.04 0.04  
3 0.13 0.11 0.09* 0.08* 0.07* 0.07* 0.06* 0.06*  
4 0.18 0.15 0.13 0.11 0.1 0.09* 0.08* 0.07* POSSIBLY*
5 0.22 0.18 0.16 0.14 0.12 0.11 0.1 0.09*  
6 0.26 0.22 0.19 0.17 0.15 0.13 0.12 0.11  
7 0.31 0.26 0.22 0.19 0.17 0.15 0.14 0.13 DEFINITELY
8 0.35 0.29 0.25 0.22 0.2 0.18 0.16 0.15  
9 0.4 0.33 0.28 0.25 0.22 0.2 0.18 0.17  
10 0.44 0.37 0.31 0.28 0.24 0.22 0.2 0.18  

Restrictions on alcohol consumption aboard a boat are more strict in British Columbia.  It is only legal to consume alcohol beverages on a vessel if the vessel has permanent sleeping facilities, the vessel has permanent cooking facilities, the vessel has a permanent toilet, and the vessel is anchored or secured alongside a dock.  The Criminal Code of Canada imposes penalties if an operator has more than 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood.  The penalties are $600.00 fine for 1st offense, at least 14 days incarceration for 2nd offense, and at least 90 days incarceration for a 3rd offense.

Taking all factors into consideration, the prudent choice is to leave consumption of alcohol beverages to non-operators while a vessel is underway and to limit consumption overall to be sure no one on board becomes intoxicated.  The U.S. Coast Guard and local law enforcement officers are coordinating efforts to minimize problems resulting from alcohol consumption and greater enforcement is occurring as the effort proceeds.

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