Boating and Drinking

The sun is over the yardarm (well – as good as), you've finished boating for the day and you feel you really deserve a gin and tonic or two, or a glass of wine, or maybe a few pints. Although you don’t plan to drive a car, or you probably won't take the boat any further that night and if you decide to go ashore it'll only mean driving the RIB. Hang on a minute – have you thought about the implications of boating and drinking, do you know what the law says and shouldn't you take a few minutes to find out?

The law in the UK

Drink-boat legislation is actually on the statute books, in the Railways and Transportation Safety Act of 2003. Section 80 refers to non-professionals who are on board a ship which is underway, or is exercising or attempting to exercise a function in connection with the navigation of the vessel. It states that the person is committing an offence if his ability is impaired because of drink or drugs, or if it is found that the proportion of alcohol in his breath, blood or urine exceeds the prescribed limit. A limit of 80 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood would apply to those involved in the navigation of a vessel greater than 7m (23ft) in length or capable of a maximum speed of more than 7 knots. But as section 80 is not yet signed off, it is not in force. This situation could change quickly, allowing harbourmasters, or naval, military or customs officers the authority to detain a vessel until a police officer arrives. Magistrates could impose a fine of up to £5,000 and higher courts could impose an unlimited fine or 2 years imprisonment. There are many difficulties, however, as this law seems to be flawed in several ways, including how it defines those it applies to and how it is to be enforced – for example:-

  • Having promised to exclude small, slow boats, the government struggled to define "small" and "slow".
  • The definition of "exercising a function" on the vessel was not made clear.
  • How does a harbourmaster detain a boat that is underway?
  • What about the possibility of drinking while moored to a pontoon?
  • Jet skis are exempt from this law, as it stands at the moment, as they are not classed as boats.
  • The RYA believes that regulation should be proportionate, effective and enforceable and believe that the present act does not satisfy these criteria.
  • The MAIB (Marine Accident Investigation Board) have recommended that the government should "implement limits on the amount of alcohol consumed by persons in charge of pleasure vessels", but the RYA believe that the MAIB's evidence does not support their argument.
  • While agreeing with the MAIB's findings that alcohol as been a factor in a few boating accidents, the RYA and many others, believe that the sort of legislation they are advising is using "a sledgehammer to crack a nut" and that many sensible, law-abiding boaters will be unfairly targeted. They believe that there is no evidence of an extensive problem relating to alcohol and boating. Current legislation means that boaters can be prosecuted under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 if they are seen to be endangering other vessels, structures or individuals and are under the influence of alcohol. Most local harbour authorities have byelaws which relate to prosecution of boaters under the influence of alcohol when in charge of a vessel.

Other parts of Europe

Guernsey is considering the introduction of laws relating to being under the influence, whilst in charge of a private vessel. This is following an incident where a Guernsey lifeboat was called out to search for a purportedly drunk crew. Any proposal will have to be taken to the States of the Channel Islands for approval.

If you are travelling to other countries in Europe it would be as well to research the various drink-boating laws, or find out if, (like the UK), they are non-existent. So my advice would be, be careful, don't overdo your drinking and find out as much as you can before you go. Information seems to be well buried and not easy to find.

The law in the US

According to the US Coastguard "alcohol is more hazardous on water than on land". It is believed that most boating accidents involve the use of alcohol and one-third of all boating fatalities are alcohol related. It is illegal, in every state, to operate a boat or permit others to do so, while under the influence of alcohol, narcotics, or barbiturates. The Coast Guard also enforces a federal law that prohibits BUI (Boating Under the Influence of alcohol or drugs). This law pertains to all boats from rowing boats to the largest ships and includes foreign vessels that operate in US waters. Penalties are severe and might include fines of up to $5000, imprisonment of up to one year, public service work or substance-abuse counselling. For inflicting a serious or fatal injury the penalty can be as much as 5 years in prison plus a fine. Some states have additional penalties and different limits, so it is crucial to find out what the law is in your location.

What about Australia?

Here there is a clear absence of legislation on how much alcohol can be consumed. There is an advertising campaign targeting skippers who drink while operating a boat and reminding them that they can be accountable for any accident or injury if they are found to be affected by alcohol, but that is as far as it goes and there is no legal blood-alcohol limit.

What are the effects of alcohol in relation to boating?

We are all aware that alcohol affects judgment, balance and vision, components crucial to boat operation. If any of these are adversely affected, the likelihood of a boating accident increases and when one adds unpredictable weather and sea conditions the combination can result in a tragedy. You may fail to detect problems and your response to them could also be delayed. Alcohol also increases risk-taking and may lead us to believe that we can do things beyond our capability. There is also the added complication of the danger of falling overboard, hypothermia, or at worst, drowning. The US Coastguard estimated that in over half of all boating deaths involving alcohol, the victim fell overboard or capsized their boat.

What about the future?

The proposed drink-boat legislation only needs the signature of the Shipping Minister to become law, but after prevaricating for 9 years, how likely is this to happen? Hopefully the majority of sensible, level-headed boaters who are quite happy to have a few drinks when they have moored up or dropped the anchor and don't intend setting off again until the following day, will have their way. Sensible sailors don't need legislation but unfortunately there are always some idiots who spoil it for the rest.

Somehow asking, "is the sun over the yardarm – who's for an orange juice?" just doesn't sound right.

Author – Dee White

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