Drunken boaters will be targeted this weekend

·3 min read

Jul. 2—After a hiccup during the early pandemic years, Oregon boaters have shown a vastly improved ability to steer clear of too many suds or buds while operating watercraft on the state's rivers and lakes.

Following a vast dip in arrests for boating under the influence of intoxicants in 2020 and 2021 compared with 2019, Oregon's water rats will be put to the test this Fourth of July weekend to keep their streak going.

The Oregon State Marine Board and U.S. Coast Guard again will be taking part in Operation Dry Water, meant to keep intoxicated and drug-addled paddlers and powerboaters off the water and off injury and fatality statistic rolls.

Patrols by county marine deputies funded by the Marine Board will be out in force enforcing laws meant to curb intoxicated boaters without necessarily pulling the cans out of their hands.

Under Oregon law, boaters are allowed to have open alcohol containers on board and can legally drink while on the water. However, the same thresholds for impairment for vehicle drivers apply to those in boats — even for those casually paddling a raft steered by someone else.

Violators face fines and loss of boating privileges, but sentences generally are far more lenient than those for drivers on dry land.

After two decades of drunken-boating enforcement, Oregon boaters seem to be drinking the Kool-Aid on BUIIs, statistics show. BUII arrests dropped from 53 statewide in Oregon in 2019 to 21 in 2020, and just nine during all of last year, Marine Board statistics reveal.

Rafters are realizing they can drink while paddling rafts, but there's a line they cannot cross, says Dennis Enriquez, whose Rapid Pleasure livery in Shady Cove has been renting rafts to the public for nearly four decades.

"It's like, if you're drunk behind the steering wheel, it's illegal," Enriquez says. "If you have a paddle in your hand, and you're drunk, it's illegal."

And rafters seem to take heed of late to that definition, he says.

"From what I see, things really have diminished," Enriquez says. "People seem to have better control of themselves than they used to.

"So the river has turned back to being a more family-friendly thing, he says. "You don't have as many idiots as before."

But the remaining "idiots" have intensified their impairments of choice over the years, and marine deputies are not getting lost in their wakes.

Many marine officers have completed specialized training to recognize alcohol and drug impairment. This includes prescription drugs, alcohol, inhalants, marijuana or any other substance that impairs a person's ability to make good judgment and safely operate any boat, according to the Marine Board.

The effects of drugs and alcohol also are amplified on the water with the combination of sun glare, wind, waves and other environmental stressors, deputies say. Alcohol also dehydrates the body, increasing the risk of drowning after sudden immersion into cold water.

Oregonians are improving in boating-related accidents after recording 91 in 2020, the most in two decades, according to Marine Board statistics. The 26 boating fatalities that year was also the highest in at least 30 years, statistics show.

Marine Board spokeswoman Ashley Massey attributes the rise to more inexperienced paddlers getting themselves into boating situations for which they were not ready.

Last year, however, things got much better. Marine Board statistics show 48 boating wrecks and 19 fatalities. While the accident levels were nearly half that of the previous year, the fatality tally matched boating deaths in 2016 and 2012, records show.

Mark Freeman covers the outdoors for the Mail Tribune. Contact him at 541-776-4470 or email mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com.