Alcohol and safety risks on board

Gino Bottino, MD


According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s 2017 Recreational Boating Statistics, 658 people died from recreational boating accidents. Alcohol use was the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents. Where the cause of death was known, alcohol was listed as the leading factor in 19% of deaths. Even moderate alcohol consumption substantially increases the risk of drowning, and consuming larger amounts of alcohol increases the risk of drowning 30 to 50 times more than that of someone who has not been drinking.


Results of a collaboration between Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Dec. 19, 2001). The researchers reviewed 221 boating deaths recorded in their two states between 1990 through 1998. About 80% of these cases involved passengers (not skippers) who had fallen overboard and drowned. Dr. Robert Foss, researcher at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center and lead author, said the researchers were surprised to find that many victims were wearing personal flotation devices. Life jacket wear, however, was not a major focus of the study. They found that a little over half of the deaths were alcohol-related.

Effects of alcohol

Because the effects of alcohol are so vast, and different for each age group, no comprehensive review will be undertaken here. Below are just the salient points related to boating: GOOD BALANCE is essential on board. Alcohol use greatly increases the risk of slips and falls, going overboard, and injury while operating equipment. IMPAIRED JUDGEMENT caused by lack of inhibitions while using alcohol leads to risk-taking behavior and lack of consideration for the wellbeing of crew and passengers, putting everyone in harm’s way. SLOWED REACTION TIME Alcohol severely diminishes your ability to react to several different signals at once. It takes longer to receive information from your eyes, ears and other senses and even more time to react. Reduced night vision and the inability to distinguish red from green makes the intoxicated night boater an even greater hazard. BRAIN FOG Research shows that hours of exposure to boating stressors produces a kind of fatigue, or “boater’s hypnosis,” which slows reaction time almost as much as if you were legally drunk. Adding alcohol or drugs to boating stress factors intensifies their effects; each drink multiplies your accident risk. [/pullquote] Over three months during the summer, researchers also interviewed more than 3,000 boaters. They inquired about their drinking habits and used portable breathalyzers to determine the participants’ blood alcohol content. According to this study, people who had a blood alcohol level of just 0.01 (the result of just one or two drinks and well within legal limits for most states) have a 30% higher risk of being in an accident than people with no alcohol in their blood. Many factors (body size, fat content, underlying disorders, etc.) contribute to the way alcohol affects various individuals, so just how many drinks it took to cause a problem wasn’t specified. It was no surprise to researchers that intoxicated boaters (passengers as well as skippers) are at greater risk. According to the study, the chance of dying was more than 52 times greater when victims had a blood alcohol content of 0.25. Foss stated that they were trying to develop statistics similar to the extensive studies done about drinking and driving. Although the researchers did not set out to discover the adverse effects of alcohol on passengers, they will look at this more extensively in further studies that will include more information about life jacket use and drowning while intoxicated. “Frequently, people who have been drinking fall in the water, become disoriented, and drown,” explained Dr. Foss.

What you can do

Most of us enjoy sitting at anchor and having a beer with friends. However, we need to remind ourselves of the dangers involved in alcohol use on the water, and we should educate our friends who may be unaware. Then we can take measures to ensure safety aboard as we do for all the other dangerous situations on board. In the case of being at anchor, we need to remember that people can fall overboard and guard against it. People who have been drinking should not reach over the side to get something in the water, urinate over the side or dance on the foredeck. They should be safely in the cockpit and cut off from drinking when appropriate. Remember, they still have to get off the boat, a time (in my experience) when most injuries occur. Common sense goes a long way here. I enforce a policy of no alcoholic consumption while underway. Now that this important paper has been reviewed, with it clearly showing that the danger of falling overboard is greater for passengers than for the skipper, I recommend restricting alcohol consumption for both passengers as well as crew. This is especially true on a powerboat, as speed and rapid turns may become factors. In the above study the interviews were conducted with owners of small powerboats. I believe sailboats were excluded because the risk for sailors is much less. In the coming months, I will complete my series on medical kits and include some lessons learned from US Sailing’s Safety at Sea Seminars.

Gino Bottino, M.D., has had wide experience in medical practice and emergency medical matters. A member of United States Power Squadrons First Aid Support Team (FAST) and the Safety Committee, Gino also has a background in competitive sail racing and is familiar with health-related problems afloat.

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