Everyone has heard the old adage that oil and water don’t mix – the same is true of water, boating and alcohol. Jesse Lee Melvin, 43, of Denver died Saturday in the Colorado River near the Utah-Colorado border. Authorities have indicated that he was intoxicated when he entered the 60 degree water and that he was not wearing a life jacket. While not involving boating per se, this incident highlights the danger of mixing alcohol with water based recreational activities.
Boating Under the Influence?
Utah law prohibits a person under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs to operate a motorboat. Conviction of boating under the influence may result in: the loss of your motor vehicle driver’s license, a fine, a mandatory jail sentence, community service work, and rehabilitation assessment.
A person under age 21 may not operate a motorboat with any measurable amount of alcohol in their body. In addition, a person may not authorize or knowingly permit a vessel owned by him, or under his control, to be operated by a person who is under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.
Statistics indicate that a boat operator or passenger with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .10 is more than 10 times as likely to die while boating than a boat operator or passenger with a zero BAC. The risk grows to more than 50 times as the BAC level approaches .25.
The operator of a motorboat may not have an open container of an alcoholic beverage while the boat is in operation. A person operating a motorboat on Utah’s waters is considered to have given consent to take any chemical test requested by a peace officer who feels the person has been operating a motorboat while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. The arresting officer may seize and impound the offender’s boat, trailer, and tow vehicle. Refusal to take a chemical test is admissible in any civil or criminal action or proceeding, and may result in the loss of your motor vehicle driver’s license.
Research indicates why the rules for operating a boat under the influence are much the same as those that apply to operating a motor vehicle:
Alcohol can decrease a person’s ability to handle a boat in many ways. As a depressant, alcohol goes straight to the nerves, blood stream, and the brain. As recreational boaters, it is hard enough to remember all the rules, regulations, boat handling techniques, etc. while lucid. A few beers to quench the thirst in a rapidly dehydrating body and the following happens:
- Eroding sense of balance – Most boating deaths result from falling out of a small open boat, without a PFD, whether it capsizes or not.
- Vision fades – Because of the sun and reflection of light, objects on the water can be hazy and difficult to see. Color perception and peripheral vision deteriorate and, at night, depth perception decreases. You can imagine what happens if you can’t distinguish between the red and green markers or red and green lights of an oncoming vessel at night.
- Coordination suffers – Should a person fall into the water, he or she may have trouble just floating, let alone grasping onto a life ring or throwable device. Add the shock of the cold water and the risk of cramping and drowning is increased significantly.
- Surface blood vessels dilate – Blood vessels on the surface of the skin dilate to increase the rate of body heat loss while in the sun. If, while these vessels are dilated, you fall overboard into cold water, hypothermia sets in quickly. This further reduces your decision-making abilities.
- Judgment is impaired – One of the things that drinking tends to do is to make lose your judgment. After a drink or two, people tend to become relaxed and are more likely to perform dangerous acts that they might not do if not under the influence. Because their judgment is impaired, they may not even realize they are doing something dangerous. This, combined with the other debilitating symptoms previously covered, spells disaster.
- Environmental stressors – Natural stressors such as exposure to sun, glare, wind, noise, vibration, and motion on the water produces "boater’s hypnosis" or fatigue. This in itself reduces reaction time almost as much as being under the influence. Adding alcohol to these environmental stressors intensifies their effects.
The message is clear and should be heeded: don’t drink and mix water or boating.
Bret Hanna of Wrona DuBois in Utah, focuses exclusively on litigating plaintiffs’ medical malpractice and catastrophic personal injury cases. He has represented clients in state and federal courts, in mediations, and in administrative proceedings in Michigan and Utah since 1991.