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What’s the Best Way to Stop BUI?

One campaign urges boaters to have a sober skipper, Another wants to ban booze from the boat entirely
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Back in the days when Cheers and L.A. Law were the top shows on television, a new term—designated driver—started to become more prominent in American discourse. By 1991, the term had made it into Random House Webster’s College Dictionary. People started talking about having designated drivers just as casually as they talked about having dinner plans. Today, the two go hand in hand.

It has taken quite a while longer for the concept of driving under the influence to translate into the thinking of boaters on America’s waterways, where the U.S. Coast Guard continues to report that alcohol is the leading cause of fatal boating accidents. This year, two efforts to reduce boating under the influence—efforts that are in some ways complementary, and in some ways competing—are likely to come to boaters’ attention through increased awareness and enforcement campaigns.

The first campaign is the Sober Skipper program, which the Sea Tow Foundation created in 2015 to try and make that term as common as designated driver. It’s just now starting to see widespread adoption. “We’re hearing people use it in their regular dialogue,” says Gail Kulp, the foundation’s executive director. “They used to say, ‘Don’t drink and boat.’ Now, they say, ‘Have a sober skipper.’”

Sea Tow’s Sober Skipper program calls for a designated sober driver on every boat carrying alcohol.

Sea Tow’s Sober Skipper program calls for a designated sober driver on every boat carrying alcohol.

But even that’s not good enough, according to Alex Otte, who in January 2021 became national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD. Otte herself is the survivor of a BUI incident. In 2010, when she was 13, she was sitting on a stationary personal watercraft when a drunk driver’s bass boat hit her, threw her off and then landed atop her. She broke her neck, suffered a traumatic brain injury and ultimately had to have her right leg amputated. She eventually became a researcher with Operation Dry Water, a campaign that the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators founded in 2009 to deter alcohol use on the water. Otte is now using her muscle at MADD to move the organization beyond the roadways and into the realm of BUI for the first time, starting with an awareness and enforcement campaign at Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri.

And she minces no words when she explains how MADD’s campaign goes beyond the idea of promoting a sober skipper. 

She wants all alcohol off all boats, period.

There’s no question that improvement has been made in BUI awareness and enforcement over the years. In 2004, the U.S. Coast Guard reported that alcohol was involved in approximately one-third of all boating fatalities. By 2021, the most recent statistics available, that figure had been cut in half, with alcohol cited as the leading factor in at least 16 percent of deaths.

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Operation Dry Water and the Sober Skipper program both claim credit for at least some of that improvement. Operation Dry Water’s research shows that it has gone from reaching about 52,000 boaters a year in 2010 to reaching more than 300,000 boaters a year. According to the Sea Tow Foundation, among the 51 states and territories with boating communities that have embraced its program, 94 percent saw a reduction of BUI-related deaths, accidents or injuries, and seven states saw a reduction in BUIs across all three categories.

The organizations share a goal of reducing alcohol-related injuries and accidents on the water to zero. They simply differ in their philosophies about how best to achieve that goal, and MADD is now entering the arena on the side of zero tolerance.

“On the waterway, so many deaths—almost two-thirds of deaths—occur when the boat is at anchor or drifting,” Otte says. “It has very little to do with the operator. It has to do with drunk people falling overboard, drunk people swimming where they shouldn’t be.”

Alex Otte, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is the survivor of a BUI incident.

Alex Otte, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is the survivor of a BUI incident.

Kulp says trying to eliminate all alcohol from boats is too big of a reach. “We think the Sober Skipper message is more realistic,” she says. “As long as the person in charge of the boat and everyone in the boat is not drinking, they can say, ‘Hey, you’re doing silly things, put your life jacket on and sit down.’”

Of course, both campaigns are up against centuries of tradition. Booze and boats have been the stuff of pirates and Parrot Heads for, well, ever, be it “Yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum” or “Waitress, I need two more boat drinks.” The British Royal Navy, from the 15th to 18th centuries, would stock its ships with food, beer, brandy and water—enough for sailors to receive their required daily rations of alcohol. Until 1914, the U.S. Navy allowed alcohol on its ships, too. When it enacted its ban, the American public responded with mockery; editorial cartoons made references to things like the USS Grape Juice Pinafore.

Otte says she understands that today’s boaters may have similar reactions to the idea of keeping alcohol off boats altogether, but she thinks they’ll come around. “People don’t have a choice but to figure out that they’re killing and injuring people with their choices,” she says. “People say, ‘We’re just trying to have a good time.’ But look at what someone’s good time did to me.”

No matter which approach boaters agree with, they’re likely to see more educational and enforcement actions out on the water this year. The new MADD campaign is called “BUI = DUI, Know Before You Boat.” It will be ongoing and include things like “saturation patrols” during which waters are flooded with law-enforcement officers looking specifically for BUI infractions. “Saturation Saturday,” scheduled to take place in late August or early September, will be kind of like roadway checkpoints for drunk drivers.

“One of the major benefits of having a dedicated time when you’re saturating the area is you’re putting it out to the public that it’s happening,” says Becky Iannotta, MADD director of communications. “There’s an awareness built in there. Some people think you shouldn’t tell anyone so you can catch them, but when you tell people, it saves lives. People stop and think.”

Getting people to stop and think may have generational aspects, as well. Kulp says the Sober Skipper program’s research shows that younger boaters seem more interested in sharing educational content about BUI. While most of Sober Skipper’s campaigns target boaters from 25 to 55 years old, its most recent video was aimed at 25- to 30-year-olds.

“It got more viewers in six weeks than a video we’ve had out for six years,” Kulp says. “The younger people, maybe because it’s always been a part of their world, or maybe because of social media—they see that a mistake lasts a lot longer than being good. If you do one dumb thing and it gets picked up and goes viral on social media, it ruins the rest of your life. So, they’re thinking about doing what they need to do to be safe.”

Otte, who is in her mid-20s, may simply be amplifying that generation’s thinking with the zero-tolerance MADD campaign.

“We know that so many tragedies, injuries and deaths occur because of an intoxicated operator, but so many deaths occur on the water even if people have a nondrinking operator,” she says. “All our materials say don’t drink and operate a boat, but the only way to keep everyone safe is to have no alcohol on the water.” 

This article was originally published in the September 2022 issue.

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