Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Weekend's annual Operation Dry Water to again focus on drunken boaters

Waterways law enforcement agencies are taking no chances with the up-coming weekend.

So while the weather forecast remains dicey as far as whether or not boaters will have the opportunity to set sail, local, state and federal agencies are still gearing up for their combined annual “Operation Dry Water” project.

The goal of this joint venture is to try and nab boaters operating their vessels while under the influence of alcohol as well as enforcing other boating-related regulations.

And the same legal parameters that dictate how much alcohol can impair a motor vehicle driver applies to captains of pleasure boats as well. That threshold for each being 0.08 in Ohio.

Thus this weekend's waterways law enforcement efforts will include increased patrols, breathalyzer tests, checkpoints as well as boater education efforts, says the Ohio Division of Watercraft.

Of course all of the agencies will have their work cut out for them. Ohio ranks 9th nationally in the number of registered watercraft at 426,000 vessels.

And while the number of boating-related fatalities have declined in recent years – down from the 16 such deaths in 2010 to 11 last year, the goal is always zero, says the Watercraft Division's chief, Roger Norcross.

Not lost either is that a goodly number of boating accidents typically occur in Northeast Ohio, especially those counties which lap at the Lake Erie shoreline.

Last year the Watercraft Division noted that for Lake County there were two boating mishaps involving three vessels though no reported injuries.

Bookmarking Lake County was a different matter, however.

To the east in Ashtabula County for all of 2012 the Watercraft Division took official note of eight boating-related accidents involving 10 vessels that resulted in five injuries.

And to the west in Cuyahoga County during 2012 the Watercraft Division recorded 12 boating-related accidents that involved 14 vessels and resulting in nine injuries.

Far and away the county with the highest number of boating-related accidents in 2012 was Ottawa in the lake's Westrn Basin.

Here the Watercraft Division recorded 26 boating-related accidents involving 33 vessels and resulting in 11 injuries.

Statewide last year the Watercraft Division recorded 161 boating-related accidents involving 199 vessels resulting in 83 injuries and 11 fatalities.

Looking at the issue from another angle these boating-related accidents caused $729,391 worth of vessel damage and $37,335 worth of property damage, Watercraft Division statistics demonstrate.

Not surprisingly then the Watercraft Division aims to ensure a safe boating weekend as well as a safe boating season, says Norcross.

“We are dedicated to keeping boaters safe while on our waterways throughout the state,” Norcross said .

That mission will mean several things for this Friday through Sunday Operation Dry Water project weekend, Norcross says.

Among them will be targeting boaters who appear to be operating a vessel while under the influence. Or drunk, to put it bluntly.

And those boaters who are found to be intoxicated will learn the hard way about how booze and boating do not mix.

Thus the consequences will result in stiff fines, jail time, and maybe the most sobering of all: the loss of boating privileges and the right to register a boat.

“Boating is a safe and enjoyable pastime when people stay alert and follow the rules,” Norcross also said.

The U.S. Coast Guard will similarly play tough if its crew members discover a boater who is, well, drunk.

Not that the Coast Guard is waiting for this year's Operation Dry Water program to begin before it starts enforcing BUI rules.

So far this year the Coast Guard's District 9 – which encompasses all of the Great Lakes – has issued just shy of 40 citations to boaters found to be operating their crafts while under the influence of either alcohol or a controlled substance.

And 16 of these citations were federal in nature, a scary enough proposition given that federal judges can hardly be described as anything less than determined jurists.

“Boating under the influence is just as dangerous as driving a car under the influence, and not just for the driver but for passengers as well,” said Commander David Beck, chief of the Cleveland-based 9th District Coast Guard Enforcement Branch.

Maybe even worse since the combination of consuming alcohol while boating is magnified by the influences of sun, a boat's inherent vibration, wave action and dehydration.

“If you plan to consume alcohol, plan ahead and have a sober operator return you home safely,” Beck says.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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