It was 2016, and John Giglio was seeing a problem. “It wasn’t a massive problem, but we noticed that as we continued to grow, there was more of a likelihood that something bad was going to happen,” says Giglio, president of Freedom Boat Club, whose members can use the club’s boats all across the United States. “We’re going to do 400,000 outings this year, and every outing is an opportunity for somebody to get into trouble.”
That particular kind of trouble was boating under the influence of alcohol, or BUI. While the club did training and checkouts prior to handing a boat over to a member, it had no formal process for making sure skippers knew it was their responsibility to stay sober.
“We’ve always been proactive with alcohol: If we see three people loading up five cases of beer, we’re going to say something,” Giglio says, “but until now, the tack we’ve been taking is, if you’re OK when you come back, have fun out there. We then started noticing people coming back a little happier than they should have been. We want our members to have a good time, but they need to do it responsibly.”
The solution to that problem came in the form of yellow bracelets that the Sea Tow Foundation asked the club to pass out as part of the Sober Skipper program. Launched in 2015, the program encourages boaters to be or to designate a sober skipper before every cruise. Wearing the yellow bracelet indicates that the person has accepted that responsibility, something that Freedom Boat Club members are now asked to do before heading out onto the water.
“We’re seeing fewer incidents in general, but then when we do have an incident, we have a much firmer leg to stand on,” Giglio says. “When they left, they agreed not to drink. Now we can say, ‘You broke the rules; we talked about this,’ which means we have a better chance of getting this person out of the club and not having to argue with them.”
It may not sound like much, asking people to acknowledge the responsibility to stay sober while wearing a yellow bracelet, but it’s working—and not only at Freedom Boat Club. This past November, the Sea Tow Foundation released its grant findings for 2017-18. It found that among the 51 states and territories with boating communities that have embraced the 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.
Gail Kulp, executive director of the Sober Skipper program, says the idea is modeled after the designated-driver campaign that Mothers Against Drunk Driving launched several decades ago.
“It was a grass-roots effort to make sure you have a designated driver at a time when there was no Uber or Lyft,” she says. “We’re at the same stage with boating.”
Kulp and her team have worked with waterfront restaurants to recognize the bracelets and serve sober skippers free soda or iced tea, or perhaps a discounted dessert. They’ve also worked with community leaders who come up with creative ideas for spreading the program’s message.
One of those communities is St. Johns County, the home of St. Augustine on Florida’s northeast coast. This past summer, the sheriff’s department there got a local pressure-washing business to donate its services. Kulp’s team created stencils with the Sober Skipper message, and the pressure-washers blasted the stencils over dirt-encrusted spaces to create clean graffiti that lasted for about four months. “It definitely gets people’s attention,” Sgt. Josh Underwood says.
“We put them at the boat ramp, and it was right there where they were putting the trailers in the water. We also put it on the walkways where they had to go after they launched. It was getting them to think about having a sober driver.” It’s too soon to tell whether the program’s message had a statistical effect on BUIs in St. Johns County, Underwood says, but given that the cost of spreading the message was zero, his department believes it was a no-brainer investment.
The Sea Tow Foundation funds the Sober Skipper program through a grant from the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, administered by the U.S. Coast Guard. Kulp says the program reached more than 8.4 million people in 2019 alone.
Giglio says the concept has been so successful at Freedom Boat Club that his team has expanded it. In addition to members choosing a sober skipper during checkout before a cruise, they also designate a lookout. That person gets a blue bracelet.
“One of the major causes of injury on boats in general is wake-related injuries,” he says. “It’s people who don’t know how to handle a wake. They don’t slow down or tell people on board there’s a big wake coming. So, we have blue bands for lookouts. Those people are responsible for keeping an eye out for wakes and notifying everybody to brace themselves. That has significantly reduced the amount of injuries we’re seeing on our boats.”
Giglio’s enthusiasm for the whole bracelet concept mirrors the feelings at the sheriff’s office in St. Johns County, especially given that there’s no cost of entry into the Sober Skipper program.
“The bracelets are free,” Giglio says. “Reach out to the Sea Tow Foundation and get shipments of them. Every marina, every boat dealer, everybody should be doing this. It’s an inexpensive way to promote safety.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue.