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How Does Alcohol Use Affect Boat Operators and Passengers?

Written by Anthony Roberts / Fact checked by Jonathan Larson

how does alcohol use affect boat operators and passengers

We always hear experts caution us against drinking and driving. So, it is unsurprising to hear the same advice when boating, but how does alcohol use affect boat operators and passengers? 

Impaired judgment, delayed reaction, and falling overboard are the most common consequences of boating under the influence (BUI). These can be either life-changing or life-ending.

So, hold on to your sailor’s hat and let us explore this issue.

What Are Alcohol’s Effects on Boaters?

The impact of drinking alcohol before or while operating a vessel is varied. However, it is worth noting that the effects of excess alcohol on boats can be one of two things. Either you harm yourself (or your passengers), or you find an easy ticket to heaven.

The US Coast Guard says alcohol is one cause of most fatal boating accidents, accounting for 16 percent of the 658 recreational boating deaths in 2021. Although the report did not mention non-fatal alcohol-related injuries, we can only assume they have a large share of the 2,641 cases.

So, how does alcohol affect you when you are operating a boat?

1. Impairs Your Judgment


Experts say alcohol affects the optimum functioning of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, impacting rational thinking and decision-making. It also impacts the hippocampus, so you may forget things you already knew.

Moreover, alcohol can reduce your ability to distinguish between two things. For example, waterways have markers of different colors to ensure boating safety. If you steer your boat to an area where you should not, you court danger and harm to yourself, your passengers, and other boaters.

Drunk boaters are daring and impulsive. Although these traits are admirable in a competitive environment, they are a big no in public waterways. Safety is a must.

2. You have Sluggish Reflexes or Delayed Reaction Times


Some folks ask, how does the effect of alcohol while boating compare to its effect while on land? We can say the impact is uncannily similar.

For example, driving under the influence causes you to hit the brakes later than normal. Turning the steering wheel to avoid hitting a pedestrian is also sluggish.

It is a similar story when boating. You do not see an obstacle in the water. And when you do see it, your sluggish reaction will make it too late to avert disaster. You will run your boat aground or run straight into another vessel.

Sluggish reflexes are due to alcohol’s impact on neurochemical pathways, preventing nervous impulses from traveling across brain regions at lightning speeds. 

3. Disrupts Your Sense of Balance


Standing and walking on a bus or train is never a steady task. Passengers must have an excellent sense of balance to keep them from falling or getting thrown out of their seats.

It is worse on a boat, especially in rough weather. And if the pilot decides to race through breakwaters, losing balance is a given. Drinking alcohol can cause someone to fall overboard and risk drowning or getting run over by other watercraft.

It interferes with the nervous system and cerebellum, which are responsible for your movements and coordination. Your brain will become too slow to process the various sensory inputs necessary for balance and equilibrium.

How Do You Estimate Alcohol-related Impairment? 


Inability to maintain balance, impaired judgment, and sluggish reflexes are the principal effects of alcohol consumption among boaters and passengers. However, it is worth noting the level or severity of these effects depends on the amount of alcohol consumed while boating.

The US prohibits operating a vehicle with a blood alcohol level of at least 0.08 percent, except Utah, which puts the limit at 0.05 percent. A boat might not have wheels, but it is still a machine that requires a person to operate safely.

Some folks believe the effects of drinking a small amount of alcohol are minimal and should not cause severe impairment, allowing them to drive a vehicle or pilot a boat.

However, the possibility of cognitive and psychomotor impairment remains. 

Take a look at the table below. Notice how the blood alcohol levels are higher in drinkers with lower body weights, suggesting they can get “drunk” more easily than heavier folks.

No. of Drinks Blood Alcohol Level depending on Drinker’s Body Weight (in pounds) Possibility of Impairment
110 120 140 160 180 200 220 240
1 0.034 0.04 0.03 0.03 0.02 0.02 0.02 0.02 Unlikely (Rarely)
2 0.066 0.07 0.06 0.06 0.05 0.04 0.04 0.04
3 0.103 0.11 0.09 0.08 0.07 0.07 0.06 0.06 Likely (Possible)
4 0.137 0.15 0.13 0.11 0.1 0.09 0.08 0.07
5 0.172 0.18 0.16 0.14 0.12 0.11 0.1 0.09
6 0.207 0.22 0.19 0.17 0.15 0.13 0.12 0.11 Highly likely (Definitely)
7 0.241 0.26 0.22 0.19 0.17 0.15 0.14 0.13
8 0.275 0.29 0.25 0.22 0.2 0.18 0.16 0.15
9 0.309  0.33 0.28 0.25 0.22 0.2 0.18 0.17
10 0.344  0.37 0.31 0.28 0.24 0.22 0.2 0.18

Although your blood alcohol level may be below the legal limit, there are no guarantees alcohol has not affected your cognitive and psychomotor functions.

How about your passengers, you might ask? 

It’s also best for passengers to avoid alcohol, but if one can’t resist some wine or beer, wait an hour after each drink before boating (a drink has 0.6 oz of alcohol).

Enforcement and Penalties for Drinking Alcohol


In addition to alcohol’s physiologic effects, you can expect several legal effects of alcohol and drugs when boating.

States have strict BUI laws with corresponding penalties. For instance, you can serve a jail sentence or have authorities revoke or suspend your boat operator license and privileges. You might also pay fines or a combination of all three.

Although states have jurisdiction over bodies of water covered by their respective boundaries, federal agencies (i.e. the US Coast Guard) can intervene by apprehending drunk boaters and turning them over to local law enforcement.

If authorities catch you intoxicated, they can terminate the voyage or prevent you from sailing. Your passengers will not be too happy about such an interruption.

The USCG can “seize” your watercraft and moor to a lawful area. They can also arrest and detain the boat operator until the person’s sober enough to shed light on their actions.

Ways to Avoid BUI

Everything we shared is true about the use of alcohol while boating, including the penalties. So, how can you avoid BUI? 

  1. Bring non-alcoholic yet fun beverages, such as lemonade, soda, iced tea, and water. 
  2. Stock the boat with snacks and food that allow you to have good meals without impairing your judgment.
  3. If you must drink, do it while you’re away from the boat and have plenty of time to become sober prior to boarding the vessel.
  4. Wear something comfortable and cool.

The most effective way to avoid BUI is never to drink alcohol and pilot a boat. If you must drink, you can let someone else operate the watercraft. However, the person must have the necessary license or certification to pilot a boat. Otherwise, you can forego your boating adventure.


Determining the answer to the question of how does alcohol use affect boat operators and passengers is easy, especially if you already have an experience getting pulled over for a DUI.

You risk harming yourself, your passengers, and other boaters because you will be unable to make rational decisions. Drunk boat operators are also slow to react and unable to maintain balance. Unfortunately, your actions might lead to the demise of someone on your boat or your surroundings.

And if you get caught, you will also be in a legal quagmire. 

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