Boating is a great recreational pastime and part of what makes it fun is the social aspect. For some, part of that socializing may mean an occasional cool one, but when it comes to boating, water and alcohol don’t mix. That’s not only common sense, it’s the law.
Boating while impaired is an offence under the Criminal Code of Canada. Not only can you be charged for impaired operation of a vessel, or of operating a vessel with blood alcohol over the legal limit, you can also be charged if you are just having a drink while operating a vessel. While statutes differ by province, Canadian Law as it relates to drinking aboard can be broken down to two basic scenarios. For the majority of Canadian boaters, alcohol cannot be consumed by the operator of the vessel or passengers while the vessel is underway. The vessel has to be anchored, moored or hard aground. In fact alcohol is not even allowed on board unless the vessel is equipped with cooking, sleeping and sanitation devices. In short, the boat must qualify as a residence to legally have alcohol present. It must be noted that in Quebec, the regulations are somewhat different. While the operator cannot drink while underway, it is permissible for passengers to have a drink.
Some of you may have witnessed the results of drinking and boating. The reckless behavior of a boater racing through a calm anchorage or a busy channel puts not only that boat at risk, but also every other vessel on the water is sharing the risk as well. Not only is there a risk of collision, but occupants of a boat who have been drinking put themselves at risk for falling overboard and drowning or other injuries due to the motion of the boat and impaired motor skills.
Every year in Canada, thousands of people are injured and hundreds die in boating accidents. In a Red Cross Society study, two-thirds of boat injury victims, where the blood alcohol level was recorded, had consumed alcohol. Almost 40 percent had an alcohol level above the legal limit. In boating drownings, 23 percent of fatalities indicated blood alcohol levels above the legal limit. When you operate a boat you are already affected by the motion, sunlight, waves and sound. Adding to this with any amount of alcohol is a deadly combination.
Not only will alcohol affect your motor skills, it also affects your judgment. Alcohol’s influence when boating will cause you to overlook the signs of your own incapacity and overlook the incapacity of your passengers as well. As the captain of a vessel you are ultimately responsible for your vessel and all of those aboard. Drinking and boating can and does lead to risky behavior affecting everyone on the water. Alcohol impairment contributes to operator inattentiveness, preventing you from possibly noting changing weather and water conditions, placing you and others at risk. So keep the alcohol away until the boating is done.
Another major concern with alcohol is accelerated hypothermia. In water as warm as 60 degrees, extended exposure can lead to hypothermia and death. Since alcohol lowers the body’s resistance to cold water, it greatly increases the effect of hypothermia. Finally, alcohol increases your instability and you are at greater risk of falling overboard. In cold water this sudden immersion can set off the phenomenon known as the gasp reflex. The gasp reflex is an automatic gasp for air, resulting in you swallowing enough water to drown instantly, or by increasing your metabolic rate and demand for oxygen in frigid water, accelerating your hypothermia symptoms.
The consequences of drinking and boating are severe. Not only could you face a hefty fine, but also you could face jail time, the loss of your driver’s license or worse: you could kill or be killed. If you keep in mind one simple rule: water and alcohol don’t mix it will help you to better enjoy your time on the water and “have many happy returns.”
Canadian Safe Boating Council
The Canadian Safe Boating Council is an alliance of members committed to preventing boating injuries and drownings, and is dedicated to promoting safe and responsible boating throughout Canada. More at www.csbc.ca.