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Operation Dry Water casts a wide net

The nationwide crackdown on drunken boating snags 322 skippers during a single weekend this summer

Law enforcement authorities stepped up BUI efforts this summer, as they did in 2009, and their success has them planning the same tactic for 2011.

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Marine law enforcement officers arrested 322 skippers this summer and charged them with boating under the influence during a three-day nationwide crackdown on drunken boating.

The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators launched Operation Dry Water in 2009 and it resulted in 283 BUI arrests. The operation aims to save lives and foster a stronger and more visible deterrent to alcohol and drug use on the nation's waterways, says Tom Hayward, NASBLA's marketing and development director.

During this year's Operation Dry Water, held June 25-27, North Carolina had the highest number of BUI arrests at 34, followed by Tennessee (27), Texas (25) and Virginia (24). The following states had no BUI arrests: Hawaii, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.

The average blood alcohol concentration level among those arrested was 0.147 percent, Hayward says. It is unlawful to operate a boat in most states with a BAC of 0.08 or higher.

"Not only is it an enforcement effort, but also an awareness effort," Hayward says. "There has been a lot of great local media coverage in many states. The message is getting out."

In 2009 and again this year, NASBLA received a $90,000 grant from the Coast Guard to fund Operation Dry Water, Hayward says. A grant in the same amount was approved for June 24-26, 2011. "We hold the operation on the weekend before the Fourth of July in hopes that the message of not drinking and driving a boat carries through the July Fourth weekend and the rest of the summer," Hayward says.

The number of law enforcement officers who participated in the effort increased from 2,442 in 2009 to 2,708 this year, and the number of boaters "contacted" jumped from 36,277 to 66,472, Hayward says.

"A vessel contact can mean a number of things," Hayward says. "In states that allow checkpoints, it would include every vessel that was stopped at the checkpoint. In other states, it would be the number of boaters that officers stopped to perform safety checks. It also includes vessels stopped for suspicion of BUI."

Nearly one in five recreational boating fatalities is directly related to boating under the influence, according to NASBLA. Education and enforcement efforts such as Operation Dry Water must continue for that statistic to change for the better, Hayward says.

"I don't think [boating under the influence] is taken as seriously as driving an automobile and drinking, but look how long it took for that awareness to get where it is today," he says. "That was probably 20 years to get the public into the mindset that drunk driving is unacceptable."

NASBLA is a national non-profit group that helps to develop public policy for recreational boating safety. It represents the recreational boating authorities of all 50 states and the U.S. territories. For information, contact NASBLA at (859) 225-9487 or visit

BUI facts

  • In 2009, alcohol was the leading factor in 16 percent of recreational boating deaths.
  • A boat operator with a blood alcohol concentration higher than 0.10 percent is estimated to be more than 10 times more likely to die in a boating accident than an operator with no BAC.
  • Operating a boat with a BAC of 0.08 or higher is against most state and federal laws.
  • Sun, wind, noise, vibration and motion - the stressors common to the boating environment - intensify the effects of alcohol, drugs and some medications.
  • Alcohol consumption can result in an inner ear disturbance that can make it impossible for a person suddenly immersed in water to distinguish up from down.

Sources: NASBLA and the Coast Guard

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.