Seattle Police Officer Mark Mulvanny remembers a time about 10 years ago when he spotted a drunk boater.
He was patrolling Lake Union when he saw the boat speeding northbound, heading straight for him.
“I activated my emergency equipment – my blue lights. And I noticed the boat was actually weaving, which is unusual,” Mulvanny said. “That was a little bit entertaining, but then I realized he was homed in on my blue lights and was basically making a target of my boat.”
Mulvanny darted out of the way, but the boat didn’t stop. So Mulvanny, who has patrolled these waters for 14 years, spun his patrol boat around and drove up to the speeding boat. The operator, for some reason, decided to board the police boat. Instead, he fell in the water.
Not every boater makes his lack of sobriety so obvious. Boating under the influence – a crime that carries a fine up to $5,000 and up to a year in prison – can be tough to spot.
The U.S. Coast Guard estimates that between 2010 and 2014, 23 people died and 39 people were seriously injured from alcohol-related boating accidents in Washington state waters. Last week, Richard Hicks of Renton was convicted of homicide after crashing his power boat into a sailboat on Lake Washington last year. He killed a 33-year-old Seattle school teacher.
Hicks’ blood alcohol limit was twice the legal limit for operating a boat. The legal limit is 0.08 percent blood alcohol content.
Most of the time, Harbor Patrol pursues a boating under the influence – or BUI – after stopping the boat driver for other issues – like speeding.
Most Seattle waterways have a speed limit of seven knots, or about eight miles per hour.
“People under the influence sometimes have difficulty doing more than one task at a time,” Mulvanny said. “They have difficulty regulating their speed, or running into things, or creating an environment that’s unsafe for swimmers and other boaters.”
Sergeant Ed Yamamoto, patrolling the waters with Mulvanny on a recent summer morning, added Seattle waters get busier as the day progresses.
“Whether it’s the kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, sailboats, power crafts, Kenmore Air, you can imagine the congestion, and our concerns for safety,” Yamamoto said.
He said it’s hard to tell if someone is drunk until they’re on scene.
“If there’s some obvious violation like speed, wake issues, we’ll do our approach, and then from there, once we get a face-to-face, we can make an assessment based on what we see and sense.”
If they suspect the driver is under the influence and has been operating the vessel, they can take the driver to a place with a breathalyzer. The operators may refuse, as car drivers can, but boaters face a $1,000 for declining the test.
Clamping down on boating under the influence is tough because boating culture is more accepting of drinking while driving a boat. It’s legal to have open containers on the water, and people hit the water to have fun. Drinking can go with that.
Dr. Beth Ebel of Harborview’s Injury Prevention and Research Center said that drinking is part of boating for a certain segment.
“There’s often an idea that alcohol isn’t as risky as a car, partly because folks think they’re just floating there,” she said.
People also incorrectly assume that drownings occur more often on rough waters.
“Drownings occur in the beautiful sunny days when we get them here,” Ebel said. “This is one of the few preventable risk factors that we can prevent.”
Seattle Police Department’s Harbor Patrol has found that about 60 percent of fatal boat collisions are alcohol related. A Harbor Patrol boating safety brochure warns boaters: “Your ability to judge speed and distance and recognize danger and act appropriately, is greatly reduced by alcohol.”
And as Sgt. Yamamoto points out, safety in a boat means a constant awareness of the water and what it can do.
“Oftentimes people underestimate the dangers of water, and your ability to survive a water event, or your immersion in water,” Yamamoto said. “I don’t care if you’re a strong swimmer or very comfortable on the water. Anything can happen. We’ve seen it all. The overconfidence. And it doesn’t take much, especially out here, for someone to get in trouble.”
He said the best option for staying safe in a boat – just like in a car – is to have a designated driver who doesn’t drink at all.
David Hyde and Kate O'Connell contributed reporting.