There is good news and bad news on boating safety in Maine. The good news: Fewer boaters are operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The bad news: Not enough boaters are wearing their life jackets.

Both behaviors were evident during Operation Dry Water, a highly publicized effort in late June by the Maine Warden Service and the Maine Marine Patrol. All available officers from both agencies were on the water looking for boat operators who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Part of a national effort of stepped-up law enforcement, Operation Dry Water also involved checking for compliance with state laws and spreading important messages about boating safety.

Lt. Adam Gormely of the Maine Warden Service says things have come a long way since the 1970s, when many people seemed to think little of consuming alcohol then operating a boat and driving home.

“Society has changed,” he says. “It took some time, but now it’s very socially unacceptable to drive while consuming alcohol.”

The weekend’s statistics reflect that change in attitude. Out of nearly 1,800 vessels and more than 5,300 boaters contacted on the water in Maine from June 25 to 27, only one person was found to have a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit of 0.08.

Col. Joe Fessenden of the Maine Marine Patrol agrees that alcohol use is down, and the designated driver concept has caught on.

“We still see open containers, but not at the level it used to be,” he said.

While the frequency of boating while intoxicated is moving in the proper direction — down — the news on use of personal floatation devices (PFDs, or life jackets) is far less encouraging.

Maine law requires all boats to carry a wearable, properly sized PFD for every person on board, but only children age 10 and under are required to actually wear them. Most adult boaters — 95 percent — don’t wear them, and that concerns both Gormely and Fessenden.

“We’ve had two fatalities this year involving people who probably would not have died had they been wearing life jackets,” says Gormely. “I can’t explain strongly enough that if you wear a life jacket, you’re probably not going to drown.”

Gormely says even strong swimmers should don PFDs. He points out that those who can easily swim a few hundred yards in calm waters on a nice day while wearing a swimsuit will find it more difficult to swim that distance while fully clothed, following a blow to the head or having consumed a few beers.

Fessenden says he’s seen a slight rise in PFD use on coastal waters, particularly with inflatable PFDs, but there is still much room for improvement.

“Get thrown into water with no warning, and a life jacket can make difference between life and death,” he says.

Statistics bear this out. Of the 31 boating fatalities recorded by Division 1 of the U.S. Coast Guard, which covers the northeastern U.S., only three victims were known to have been wearing PFDs. Gormely points that that in many cases, PFDs are on board but not accessible. Often, they’re still in their zippered bag, stuffed into the forepeak or some other deep, dark corner.

There has been much debate over whether the requirement to wear PFDs should be extended to adults. But Gormely says laws or suggestions should not be the driving force behind wearing a life jacket.

“Don’t wear a life jacket because I told you to, wear it because your loved ones expect you to come home,” he says. “Wear it for your wife and children — for the people who expect to see you flipping burgers at the barbecue.”

Along with limiting alcohol consumption and wearing a PFD, Fessenden says boaters would be wise to adjust their speed to accommodate visibility and weather conditions.

“During periods of reduced visibility and after dark, things can get dangerous,” he says. “Collisions with submerged objects can be a problem, especially after full-moon tides, and they can quickly submerge your boat. Most accidents result from people operating a vessel too fast for existing weather and visibility.”

Both Gormely and Fessenden point out that with the season in full swing, people can expect to see wardens and marine patrol personnel on the water. In some cases, the efforts will focus on places where there have been problems in the past. But boaters shouldn’t be put off by the presence of law enforcement.

“We want people to enjoy themselves,” says Gormely. “Just remember that regulations are in place because some people found them important enough to make them the law.”

Gail Rice of Freeport and her husband, Randy, race and cruise their Pearson 30 sloop on Casco Bay. Contact her at:

[email protected]