Boats, Booze, And Darkness Don’t Mix
Here is the sober truth about how alcohol affects your senses at night. It’s not pretty
ometime in the dark, early morning hours on July 3, 1999, two
boats collided at high speed on
the St. Croix River near Bayport,
Minnesota. One boat was estimated to have been traveling between 50 and
60 knots and the other at about 30 knots.
All occupants of the two boats, a total of
five people, died in the collision. All five
had been drinking.
Shortly afterward, the National
Transportation Safety Board (NTSB),
the organization best known for analyzing the causes of major airline accidents,
announced it would begin an investigation.
Unlike the wreck of sailboat Morning Dew,
there were no unanswered questions that
prompted the NTSB to investigate the St.
Croix River collision. Quite the contrary;
boating accidents involving alcohol occur
frequently on the nation’s waterways, especially at night. And while this accident
involved more fatalities (one short of being
considered a “Major Marine Accident”),
NTSB was interested in becoming more
involved in recreational boating safety. The
St. Croix collision — a nighttime collision
involving alcohol — seemed like a good
place to start.
ing for several years and was described as
“friendly and calm” by the marina manager.
However, his driver’s license had once been
revoked for driving under the influence of
alcohol; it had since been reinstated.
In summarizing their report of the
accident, NTSB concluded that the probable cause was “alcohol impairment, which
led the two boat operators to indulge in
high-speed operations at night, and that
impaired their ability to determine the
movements of other vessels and to take
appropriate action to avoid a collision.”
There are many similar accidents
involving alcohol in the BoatU.S. Marine
Insurance claim files. Coast Guard statistics
indicate a reduction in boating fatalities, the
result of ongoing efforts by boating safety
groups such as the BoatU.S. Foundation
for Boating Safety. Nevertheless, the occurrence of any fatal accident that could’ve
been avoided is deeply disturbing.
The St. Croix Collision
According to accounts given to NTSB
investigators, on July 2, the owner of one of
the boats, a 27-foot Advantage, had spent
most of the afternoon and evening drinking
with friends at a bar adjacent to his marina.
Witnesses also confirmed that the owner of
the second boat, a 22-foot Bayliner, also had
been drinking with friends. After the accident, autopsies found that both owners had
blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels
over 0.2%. The other victims had BAC levels ranging from 0.127% to 0.197%. A BAC
of 0.10% is considered legally intoxicated
in Minnesota; in many other states the legal
limit is even lower: 0.08%. Both owners
were experienced boaters. The Advantage
owner had been employed as an Advantage
salesman and had received factory training
in various high-speed Advantage models.
The Bayliner owner had also been boat-
At 7: 45 p.m., the owner of this boat was operating it on the Middle River, in Maryland. He reports that another vessel was operating at high speed. Deciding to race, he accelerated to what he estimated was in excess of 55 mph. His vessel hit a wake. He was thrown overboard. His vessel continued on at full throttle. Meanwhile, a Viking 37 was idling nearby. The Viking’s owner saw the operator get ejected, then watched the unattended vessel come directly toward him. It made a glancing blow high on the port side, ripping out approximately 15 feet of planking. The unattended vessel continued to cross the river, full throttle, then struck a dock and became airborne, apparently gaining an altitude of 30 feet. It traveled 56 feet through the air, flying over the seawall and a small tree, before slamming into a 200-year-old oak tree. The vessel’s engines continued to run. The owner of the house came outside and shut off the engines. The operator in the water was picked up by another vessel. The police were called. He was arrested and charged with operating while intoxicated.