Paddling Safety 101: Alcohol and Boating Don’t Mix

This article was produced under a grant from the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, administered by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Some of the most important decisions you make while boating happen before you even leave shore—like whether or not to knock back a few beers. Although it can be tempting to enjoy a drink or two while out on the water, booze and boating really don’t mix.

That’s because alcohol has side effects beyond an enjoyable buzz. It impairs your balance, which makes trips and falls more likely. Add in a few waves and a rocking deck, and you’ve got a recipe for injuries and even an unplanned swim. If you do fall overboard, alcohol increases your risk of drowning significantly. And even if you stay dry, it can cloud your judgement, which can put you and everyone else on board in danger.

It’s not just a hypothetical either. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, alcohol is involved in about one third of all recreational boating fatalities. Even if you think just one drink won’t matter, booze can sneak up on you: A boat operator is likely to become impaired faster, drink by drink, than a driver in a car. That’s because the rocking motion of the boat, along with sun, wind, and spray, make the effects of alcohol impairment even more potent.

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That’s why it’s illegal to operate a boat—everything from a canoe to a mega-yacht—under the influence of alcohol in every single U.S. state, and breaking those rules can result in stiff penalties, including jail time.

Thankfully, a disaster is easy to avoid: Bring plenty of water, and maybe a few snacks, for the boat, and save the drinks for after you return to shore.

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