Alcohol and Water Don’t Mix

Mike Baron, United States Coast Guard Division of Boating Safety

Good company, fair weather and a few rounds. Some boaters feel that a drink enhances time on the water. The serenity of the water and lack of traffic lights and speed limits contribute to the illusion that operating a boat on the water is safer and less demanding than driving on the highway.

But in reality, the marine environment is more taxing and challenging than typical driving conditions. The average person has far less experience operating a boat than a car. Boat operations are more demanding: There are no brakes; operators must compensate for currents, winds and waves; and navigating around other vessels can be complex. Boaters must constantly remain alert for other vessels with widely disparate capabilities and maneuverability — often sharing the water with kayakers, powerboats, sailboats and personal watercraft, as well as swimmers, waterskiers and tubers, and commercial craft.

Wave action, glare from the water and motor vibrations all increase demands on the boater, causing fatigue. These factors have been shown to intensify and speed the effects of alcohol consumption — a drink on the water may cause more impairment, more quickly than it would on land. Physical exertion while boating, and the resulting dehydration, also increases alcohol’s effects. One drink while boating may therefore cause the same decrease in motor skills and cognitive abilities as two or three drinks on land.

Alcohol use also poses some special concerns for boat operators and passengers. The use of alcohol is involved in about one-third of all boating fatalities. Falls overboard and swamped or capsized boats are the most common fatal accidents. Alcohol dilates blood vessels, causing a false sensation of warmth and making an individual exposed to cool or cold water much more susceptible to hypothermia.

Having a “designated operator” who abstains is smart. But it’s also important that passengers don’t overindulge, for the safety of all aboard.

A few tips for responsible passenger consumption:
– If you want to include alcoholic drinks, plan a picnic or party ashore.
– Serve hearty snacks or a meal with soft drinks and water.
– Measure wine and the liquor in mixed drinks to make sure you aren’t super-sizing portions.
– Use juices rather than carbonated beverages for mixers (carbonation speeds alcohol absorption).
– Encourage passengers to alternate nonalcoholic beverages with alcoholic drinks.
– Be cautious if anyone is taking over-the-counter or prescription drugs — many, including medications commonly used for motion sickness, can interact with or accelerate and intensify the effects of alcohol.
– Stop serving well in advance of the group’s return to the boat, to allow the effects of alcoholic beverages to dissipate. Be aware which passengers will be drivers at the end of your outing.


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