Public safety officers will be patrolling Maine waters from Kittery Harbor to the Canadian border over the long holiday weekend to increase awareness and enforcement of boating regulations, especially laws against operating under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.

Officers with the Maine Warden Service, Maine Marine Patrol and U.S. Coast Guard are teaming up for Operation Dry Water, a national outreach and enforcement campaign held each year near the Fourth of July that focuses on removing intoxicated and other unsafe operators from the nation’s lakes, rivers and bays.

“If we catch people drinking and boating this weekend, it’s pretty likely you’re going to be spending part of the weekend in jail,” said Cpl. John MacDonald, spokesman for the Maine Warden Service.

Friday through Sunday, thousands of law enforcement officers across the country will be on the lookout for any unsafe boat operators and strictly enforcing all boating laws, including those pertaining to speed, use of life jackets, vessel registration, waste disposal and other regulations.

The annual campaign is a concerted effort to stop boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs – both of which continue to be major factors in accidents and deaths on U.S. waterways, according to the the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.

Nationally, alcohol and drug use was a primary contributing factor in 285 boating accidents in 2017, causing 112 deaths and 229 injuries, the Coast Guard’s Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety reported. In Maine, which registers more than 120,000 watercraft annually, alcohol was a contributing factor in 21 boating accidents from 2013 to 2017, causing nine deaths and 12 injuries, the agency reported.

In 2018, Maine game wardens investigated four boating fatalities and charged 18 boaters with operating under the influence, MacDonald said. They issued 457 citations and 1,131 warnings related to recreational boating, with the most frequent violations being lack of life jackets (196 citations and 222 warnings), unregistered watercraft (148 citations and 176 warnings) and 52 boaters who were cited for either careless or reckless operation of watercraft.

MacDonald noted that the same OUI laws apply to boats, cars and other vehicles. Operating a watercraft with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or higher is against the law, whether the vessel is a kayak, a rowboat, a pontoon party boat, a schooner or a tanker.

“Culturally, we’re a little behind in our thinking about boating while intoxicated compared to driving while intoxicated,” MacDonald said. “But I think it’s coming around.”

Boaters often must consider additional factors to navigate safely, such as the angle and reflection of the sun; wind and sudden weather changes; other vessels, buoys, rocks and similar hazards; and water conditions such as waves, tides, currents and shipping channels, MacDonald said.

“We don’t feel people properly assess all the risks associated with boating and drinking,” MacDonald said. “You need all your senses to navigate a boat safely, and that becomes even more of an issue on a holiday weekend.”

Throughout the weekend, officers will be conducting OUI-focused enforcement and safety inspections, while educating the public on the dangers of boating under the influence, MacDonald said.

Last year, 7,418 officers from 574 law enforcement agencies around the nation participated in Operation Dry Water. They interacted with nearly 202,000 boaters in more than 81,600 vessels. They issued 19,260 safety warnings, wrote over 7,300 citations for violations and arrested 494 boaters who were charged with operating while intoxicated.

In Maine last year, Operation Dry Water included 80 game wardens who combined spent more than 1,200 hours inspecting nearly 2,500 boats carrying 5,400 operators and passengers. Eight boat operators were charged with OUI, including one with a blood alcohol level of 0.22, which is nearly three times the legal limit, MacDonald said.

The most common violations encountered during last year’s event involved safety equipment, registration requirements and safe operation. Wardens issued more than 100 citations and 328 warnings.


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