TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs remains a serious problem on the Great Lakes even though the number of pilots busted for intoxication is down from a decade ago, the U.S. Coast Guard says.
Agency personnel stationed on the five lakes had issued 89 citations for drunken boating this year through Aug. 13, said Lt. Davey Connor, spokesman for the Coast Guard's 9th District office in Cleveland. That's up from 84 during the same period a year ago but still an improvement from 2005, when the number had reached 262 by the same date.
"Not only is boating under the influence just as illegal as driving under the influence, it's just as dangerous," said Cmdr. David Beck, chief of the district's enforcement branch. "If you plan to consume alcohol, plan ahead and have a sober operator return you home safely."
Alcohol use is a leading cause of fatal boating accidents, the Coast Guard says.
It's not illegal to drink on the Great Lakes, but vessel operators are expected to remain clear-headed. The legal threshold for impaired boating in most of the region's eight states is a blood-alcohol content of .08 percent, the same as for driving a motor vehicle.
But many people don't realize that a boat's rocking motion, engine vibration and noise — along with sun and wind — can intensify the effects of alcohol, Connor said. A boat operator probably will become impaired more quickly than an automobile driver after consuming the same amount, he said.
The Coast Guard doesn't set up checkpoints as law enforcement agencies sometimes do on roads, said Lt. Andy Perodeau of the enforcement branch. But officers look for signs of intoxicated pilots during routine inspections, when they check vessels to make sure they have equipment such as life jackets and seasonal flares. They also spot vessels operating erratically and receive tips from other boaters.
Guard personnel have conducted 10,200 recreational vessel boardings in the Great Lakes this season, a typical number. About 1 percent of the checks have produced a citation for boating under the influence. It may seem like a small number but it's likely that other violators aren't being caught, Connor said.
In May, a team from Station Marblehead in Ohio boarded a boat with 12 people aboard near Kelleys Island in Lake Erie. The operator had a blood-alcohol level of .112 percent and none of the passengers was sober enough to take the wheel, so the entire group was escorted to shore, the 9th District reported on its blog.
Penalties for violations range from $1,000 to $5,000, depending on circumstances such as negligent handling of the watercraft and repeat offenses. A conviction also could boost insurance premiums and result in revocation of credentials for licensed mariners.
The number of citations in the Great Lakes has fluctuated over the past decade. In 2001, the total was 105 as of Aug. 13. After peaking at 262 during the same period in 2005, it dropped steadily and bottomed out at 53 in 2010. But the numbers have jumped since then, and Coast Guard officials aren't sure why.
"We try to wrap our heads daily around why someone would think it's OK to operate a vessel under the influence," Perodeau said.