With hundreds of miles of beaches and a temperate climate all year round, it doesn’t come as a surprise that boating is one of the most popular recreational activities in Florida.
Before you kick back and open a can of beer, here are a few things you need to know about drinking and boating in the Sunshine State.
Can You Drink on a Boat in Florida?
Yes, you can drink on a boat BUT you can’t drive a boat while drinking. Your blood alcohol level must be below 0.8 when driving a boat for you to not be considered under the influence.
Driving a boat while intoxicated, properly termed as BUI (BOATING UNDER THE INFLUENCE), is considered a very serious criminal offense in several states – but the laws are more stringent in Florida because it has the most number of registered boats than any other state.
The Dangers of BUI: Why is it a Crime?
Drinking is more dangerous on water than it is on land.
Alcohol consumption is the leading cause of boating accidents in Florida, resulting in at least 613 deaths last year – according to the US Coast Guard’s Recreational Boating Statistics Report.
The same report stated that the mere fact of being on a boat is likely to accelerate the drinker’s impairment and loss of mental facilities. This is due to three reasons:
External Factors Present When Boating Tend to Intensify the Effects of Alcohol
These external factors include: the waving motion and vibrations of the boat, as well as the sun, wind and noise. They act as stressors and are often called “boater’s fatigue” – because they make you feel more drunk than you actually are.
It’s More Difficult to Navigate on Water Than on a Highway
Recreational boaters don’t operate a boat on a daily basis. As a result, they lack the experience and confidence they usually have when driving a car.
They have to be aware of tides, currents, foreign objects in the water – not to mention the lack of road lanes and traffic lights to tell them where they can and can’t drive. All these make it more difficult to control the vessel and affects the ability to make fast decisions when caught in a boating accident.
Alcohol Creates a Sensation of Warmth and Distorts Sound
The warm sensation keeps a person in the water from reacting when hypothermia sets in, while inner ear disturbances make it difficult for a person to swim toward one direction.
Rules and Restrictions Governing the Florida Waterways
The main state law that penalizes BUI is CHAPTER 327.35 OF THE 1998 FLORIDA STATUTES.
Under said law, any person who operates a boat under the influence of drugs or alcohol is guilty of boating under the influence. Note that the law uses the term “operates.” Thus, a BUI can be committed ONLY by a driver or operator of a boat.
This means that it is not illegal to drink alcoholic beverages when on a boat – as long as you’re not the one driving it. So if you’re merely a passenger, then the law doesn’t apply to you and you cannot be convicted of a BUI – no matter how drunk you are.
To fully understand the legal restrictions of drinking on a boat, here are a few important points to take note of:
- IF THE BOAT OPERATOR IS AT LEAST 21 YEARS OF AGE, THE LEGAL LIMIT OF BAC (BLOOD ALCOHOL CONTENT) IS 0.08 PERCENT.
A person can be arrested for a BUI if his blood alcohol level is at or above the legal limit – the same principle that applies when you’re driving a car.
This means that a boat operator who has a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher is already presumed under the law to be intoxicated and can be charged with a BUI.
- FOR ANYONE UNDER 21 YEARS OLD, THE LEGAL BAC LIMIT IS 0.02 PERCENT.
An individual under the age of 21 is not allowed to operate a vessel with alcohol in their system. The legal limit of .02 is sometimes called the “zero-tolerance policy” because even the smallest amount of alcohol will be sufficient cause for apprehension when it comes to underage boat operators.
- EVEN IF THE BOAT OPERATOR’S BAC IS BELOW THE LEGAL LIMIT, HE CAN STILL BE CHARGED WITH A BUI IF A LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER SUSPECTS THAT HIS NORMAL FACULTIES ARE IMPAIRED BY ALCOHOL.
The decision in these cases is entirely a judgment call on the part of the law enforcement officer.
“Impaired normal faculties” refer to the boat operator’s mental or physical abilities. Tell tale signs are usually abnormal behavior associated with alcohol consumption, like sluggish behavior and lack of balance and coordination.
- THERE IS NO LIMIT ON THE AMOUNT OF ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES YOU CAN BRING ON BOARD – AS LONG AS THE BOAT OPERATOR DOESN’T DRINK ANY.
You can bring a whole crate of beer – but make sure the driver stays sober the entire time.
This is because the law was enacted to encourage boaters to always have a “designated driver” in case of marine emergencies. It also imposes on the driver the implied responsibility over the vessel’s navigation and the safety of its passengers.
- “BOAT OPERATOR” REFERS TO THE PERSON WHO IS IN ACTUAL PHYSICAL CONTROL OF THE BOAT.
As explained earlier, only the boat operator can be arrested for BUI. The intention of the law is to encourage boaters to have a “designated driver” who does not consume alcoholic beverages.
If it isn’t clear who is driving the boat, the registered owner or renter of the boat will be considered as the boat operator.
- YOU CAN BE STOPPED AT ANY TIME WHEN YOU ARE OUT ON THE WATER.
It’s normal for law enforcement officers to set up checkpoints for random inspections and safety checks. You may be asked to pull over by either the coast guard or local authorities.
Be reminded though that officers can only conduct a visual search of the boat. They are not allowed get on board unless there is probable cause to do so, such as when there are signs of intoxication or impairment.
- THE BOAT OPERATOR MAY BE REQUESTED TO SUBMIT TO AN ALCOHOL BREATH TEST – IF HE REFUSES, HE WILL PAY A FINE.
The law enforcement officer has the right to ask the boat operator to perform a hand-held breath test and/or a series of physical sobriety tests for the purpose of determining alcoholic content in his blood or breath. Florida law enforcement is fully equipped with breath test machines in their vehicles, the most common being the Intoxilyzer 8000.
Anyone who refuses the testing will be fined $500.
- A BUI CHARGE COVERS ALL KINDS OF CHEMICAL AND CONTROLLED SUBSTANCES – LEGAL OR ILLEGAL.
Aside from alcoholic beverages, a charge for BUI can also be based on any kind of intoxicant that causes physical and mental impairment, like recreational drugs.
It can also include legal prescription medicines if it is determined as the cause for the boat operator’s impairment.
- THE LAW PERTAINS TO ALL KINDS OF VESSELS – WHETHER MOTORIZED OR NOT.
Yes, it’s possible to get a BUI for paddling a canoe under the influence.
The law covers all personal watercrafts – from motorized vessels like yachts and speed boats, to human-powered boats like kayaks and rowboats. Even if the boat is technically just floating in the water, the operator still can’t escape a BUI charge.
- A BUI CONVICTION CAN CREATE A CRIMINAL RECORD, BUT WILL NOT AUTOMATICALLY SUSPEND YOUR DRIVER’S LICENSE.
Your license to drive a car will not be suspended or revoked by a BUI conviction.
But it is possible for a BUI conviction to affect your driving privileges only if you get arrested for a DUI. This is because for purposes of enhancement of criminal penalties, the BUI conviction will be counted as a prior DUI conviction.
Penalties Imposed by the Law
The penalties for a BUI conviction in Florida are quite severe and are age specific.
For persons at least 21 years of age, the penalties are:
- First offense – a fine of not less than $250 or more than $500 and/or imprisonment of up to 6 months
- Second offense – a fine of not less than $500 or more than $1000 and/or imprisonment of up to 9 months
- Third offense (within 10 years) – a fine up to $5000 and imprisonment of up to 5 years
- Third offense (outside 10 years) – a fine of up to $2500 and imprisonment of up to 12 months
- A BUI conviction causing damage to property – imprisonment of up to 12 months
- A BUI conviction causing or contributing to serious bodily injury – imprisonment of up to 15 years
For minors under the age of 21, the penalties are:
- 50 hours of community service
- An order refraining him from operating any kind of water craft while serving his sentence
- Completion of a Boating Safety Education Course
Aside from the these penalties, a BUI conviction will also result in a criminal record and mandatory substance abuse courses. If the operator is also the registered owner, the court may also order that the vessel be impounded.
Aggressive Enforcement of BUI Laws
Florida’s enforcement agencies take BUI cases very seriously.
They are on guard throughout the year, but are especially on high alert during summer months and the Fourth of July when alcohol-related boating accidents tend to peak.
In Florida, boating laws are enforced by:
- County sheriffs and their deputies
- The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
- All other officers authorized by law, including the US Coast Guard
These officers have the authority to inspect the vessel and even order its removal in case it is considered a hazard or interferes with public safety.
The Bottom Line
Florida has strict laws surrounding boating and drinking – so think twice before getting behind the wheel of a boat with that can of beer in your hand.
To avoid being caught in a legal situation that could endanger not only yourself but everyone else on board, always remember this simple rule: if you’re driving, don’t drink.