Alcohol vs Boating: Not Worth the Risk

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Taking some beersies out on the boat is a fondly held kiwi pastime. It's hard to think of a fishing trip without a box or two, but the numbers are in and there's no disputing it: boats and alcohol don't mix.

We don't want to be party poopers here, but think of it this way: driving a boat is just as complicated and dangerous - and a crash can be as fatal - as driving a car, and we all know not to drink and drive, so this rationale should be applied to boating as well.

In addition, the effects of alcohol can be exaggerated on water with the wind, sun, noise, motion and vibration making you feel drunker, faster. Your slowed reaction time, general confusion and lack of coordination increases the likelihood of you ending up in the water by accident, or failing to act appropriately if you do. All of this can be very dangerous.

Maritime NZ and Safer Boating NZ recommend restricting yourself to one standard drink per hour, and waiting until you're on dry land (and not planning to go anywhere else) to drink any significant amount.

The skipper is responsible for the safety and wellbeing of everyone on board their boat. A responsible skipper will never operate under the influence of alcohol or allow an intoxicated person to operate their boat.

What the research shows

  • Alcohol is under-reported as a causal factor, but alcohol has been identified as one of the key risk factors in fatal and non-fatal accidents (Safer Boating Forum).
  • 31 people died in recreational boating accidents in New Zealand waters in 2014-15 (June to June), 16 people in 2015-16 and 16 people in 2016-17 (Maritime NZ).
  • There is a decline in the number of people claiming they avoid alcohol before/during a boating outing 'every time' (61% and 46% respectively). 6% of boaties admit to drinking alcohol before or during boat trips. This is significantly higher amongst large power boat owners/users (14% vs 6%) (Maritime NZ, IPSOS NZ 2017).
  • 60% of survey respondents are concerned with the 'potential for problems to occur when people drink too much alcohol when boating' but 48% agree that it's OK to drink alcohol for the type of boating they usually do (IPSOS NZ 2017).

How alcohol affects the body

  • Alcohol is absorbed directly into the bloodstream and its effects are usually apparent within minutes. Even in small quantities, it affects coordination and judgement and exaggerates confidence, and even moderate drinking can seriously impair your ability to operate a boat safely.
  • Drinking alcohol faster than your body can process it will increase blood alcohol levels.
  • Alcohol is burned off at a fairly constant rate – at about one standard drink per hour.
  • Consumption of any amount of alcohol may be dangerous, but the higher the resulting blood alcohol level, the greater the danger. Alcohol affects people differently and reactions will vary, depending on factors such as the type of alcohol you have consumed, and your body weight, food consumption, medication, stress and fatigue.
  • No matter what the activity, alcohol affects balance, vision, coordination and judgement.

The effects of alcohol on a person in the water

If you’ve been drinking, the risks escalate the moment you end up in the water. Alcohol can:

  • decrease your coordination and ability to perform a simple task, such as putting on a lifejacket
  • increase your sense of disorientation
  • make it harder for you to stay afloat
  • lower the concentrations of blood going to your brain and muscles, contributing to muscle, heat and fluid loss and speeding up the onset of hypothermia
  • reduce your ability to hold your breath
  • suppress your airway protection reflexes so you are more likely to inhale water
  • give you a false sense of your situation, causing you to attempt tasks beyond your abilities; and reduce your awareness of the onset of hypothermia.

About the NZ Safer Boating Forum

The Safer Boating Forum is a network of central and local government agencies, marine industry associations and boating organisations that promote recreational boating safety in New Zealand.

For more information go to the Maritime NZ website here.

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