Boating Under the Influence
It's not just alcohol. Waterborne "stressors" may affect seniors in
By John M. Malatak, U.S. Coast Guard, Office of Boating Safety Program
Operations. Division Chief and Dr. Richard C. Lavy, M.D., U.S. Coast
The go-fast party
boat roars by, tossing you in its wake. A personal watercraft cuts
across your bow, forcing an emergency course change. A bass boat speeds
recklessly through your favorite anchorage. Drunken antics like these
can ruin a relaxing day on the water, or worse, cause tragic accidents,
injuries, and fatalities.
Would it shock you
to know that your own behavior on the water might be just as risky? If
you're like most seniors, you're climbing aboard your boat with more
than just a hat and extra sunscreen. You're leaving the dock with a
prescription "cocktail" in your bloodstream. According to a study cited
in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, recent
estimates show that adults, 60 and older, take an average of five
prescription medications daily. The side effects of drugs such as heart
medications, blood thinners, insulin, diuretics, antidepressants and
anti-inflammatories are well documented. Still, few understand the
danger of mixing prescription medications with boating.
environment exposes people to heat or cold, motion, wind, noise and
other factors that can cause fatigue in anyone." says Dr. Richard C.
Lavy, M.D., U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary (USCGA) and representative of the
U.S.Coast Guard Office of Health Services. "For seniors on prescription
medications, these effects may lead to diminished hearing, vision,
concentration, observation and judgment. In this way, levels of
medication that would have little impact on land can potentially cause a
much greater degree of impairment for a boater."
That is why the
U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) cautions boaters that prescription medications
can also be a cause of boating under the influence (BUI) Water borne
"stressors" like sun, breeze, engine noise and vibration amplify common
side effects like drowsiness and dizziness. Under certain conditions
they can leave a boater confused, disoriented and thoroughly incapable
of driving a vessel safely. Therefore, prescription medications for the
boat's operator can be nearly as dangerous as the use of alcohol or
under the influence may overlook warning signs of their own passengers'
physical stress, subtle changes in weather conditions, or indicators of
potential boat problems, until they're in trouble. For example, if storm
clouds are building and the wind picks up, a boat operator affected by
prescription medications could fail to notice the changing conditions in
time to seek safe harbor in order to protect the boat and its
The solution is not
to stop boating. Recreational boating is one of life's great pleasures
and many seniors gravitate to boating as a relaxing and invigorating way
to spend their days. The Coast Guard wants you to enjoy your time on the
water. Nor, under any circumstances, should you stop taking medications
prescribed by your doctor.
The key is
awareness: understand the issue and be careful not to subject
yourself to conditions that would put you, your passengers or other
boaters at risk. A perfect boating day (clear, hot and breezy) might not
be so perfect if you take a diuretic. Individually these factors might
be harmless. Together, they could cause rapid dehydration, making it
quite difficult for you to control a vessel or make clear decisions.
affect balance put a boater in greater danger of falling, the leading
cause of senior injury deaths and the most common cause of nonfatal
injuries and hospital admissions for trauma. The risk to you, whether
from a fall inside the boat that leads to serious injury, or a fall
overboard, is obvious.
Heart disease, poor
circulation and obesity also affect the body's ability to regulate
temperature and to protect against heat-related illness, such as heat
cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. If you suffer from these
conditions and take medicine to control them, you should be particularly
careful when it's hot on the water.
The effects of
stressors on a boater taking prescription medications are multiplied
when alcohol is present. Drinking while boating is never a good idea.
The combination with heart medication, diuretics, antidepressants and
other medications can have serious consequences.
medications who use alcohol while boating, significantly increase the
impact of many medications and the effects of fatigue," says Dr. Lavy.
"Alcohol alone can hamper peripheral vision, night vision, focus and the
ability to distinguish colors, particularly red and green. Combine
alcohol with medications, and these adverse effects are made worst."
need to remember that these concerns don't just apply to power boaters
or sailors. Canoeists, kayakers, personal watercraft riders, anglers and
hunters are boaters too—and impaired operators are in just as much
danger as those in larger and more powerful craft.
What can you do to
boat safety while continuing to enjoy the life extending and
life-enhancing benefits of prescription medications? The Coast Guard has
a number of recommendations.
Evaluate your own risk.
Consider your physical condition. Do you have a heart condition, poor
circulation, extra weight or other factors that make you more
susceptible to fatigue and medication side effects? What medicines do
you take? Do these medicines have warnings about driving or operating
heavy equipment? Talk with your physician about the medications and
whether there is a need to alter dosages when boating.
conservative when planning your boating outings
If you take prescription medications, limit your trips to avoid fatigue.
Divide longer voyages into shorter segments, with plenty of time to rest
in between time spent motoring, paddling or sailing. Always file a float
plan, so that someone knows where you are.
Monitor your own condition on board.
Pay attention to the way you're feeling. Are you tired, drowsy, dizzy,
disoriented, momentarily confused, hot, cold, angry or giddy? Any of
these sensations may indicate that you are under the influence of your
medication and water-borne stressors,- Stop! Get to port, hand over your
boat to another qualified operator or seek medical advice by calling the
USCG or State Marine Law Enforcement on Channel 16. Realize that you may
be unable to boat safely, and that you are putting yourself and others
The physical and mental effort connected with operating a boat is
fatiguing. No one person should be at the wheel all day. Make sure that
there is another qualified skipper on board. In addition, everyone on
the vessel should be on the lookout for shifting weather and traffic or
waterway obstructions, It's also a very good idea for all passengers to
know how to administer first aid, perform CPR and use the marine radio
to call for help.
Never drink while boating.
Operating a boat while inebriated is illegal. Violators are subject to
arrest and prosecution by the USCG and local law enforcement
authorities. Remember that the marine environment also augments the
effects of alcohol—and that the combination with prescription medication
can be deadly. The USCG recommends that passengers not drink alcohol
while onboard either. Drinking may lead to risky behavior, falls
overboard and inability to help in an emergency.
Always wear a life jacket.
Most people who are killed while recreational boating drown, and most
people who drown are not wearing a life jacket. Accidents happen with
terrifying speed on the water, and there is seldom time to reach for
stowed life jackets in an emergency. The USCG recommends all boaters and
passengers wear an approved life jacket while underway, unless the
boater is inside a closed cabin. Today's life jackets are lighter, more
compact and more comfortable than the bulky orange vests most of us are
used to. New inflatable life jackets are no bigger than a heavy scarf,
and many can be set to inflate automatically when the wearer is
Wear proper clothing.
Make sure you can stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Temperature extremes can be a major stressor dramatically increasing
fatigue and augmenting the side effects of medications.
Bring plenty to eat and drink.
Stay hydrated! Drink plenty of cool water or other non-alcoholic
beverages while boating. Bring food and snacks, which help with the
proper absorption of medications and keep you alert and comfortable.
Take a boating safety course.
Seventy percent of recreational boating accidents are caused by factors
that are controlled by the boat operator; failure to pay attention,
carelessness, recklessness, inexperience, excessive speed and failure to
watch for hazards. No matter what your level of experience, you can
benefit from a refresher on the navigation rules and important safety
procedures. Today's boating safety courses are a great way to make sure
your spouse or other members of your family are capable of operating
your boat safely should you become impaired.
Coast Guard recognizes America's Boating Course (ABC) – a joint
partnership between two country's most prominent boating safety
organizations, the USCGA and the United States Power Squadrons (USPS).
ABC is available on CD-ROM, on the Internet at
Get a Vessel Safety Check every year.
If you own a boat, take advantage of the free Vessel Safety
Check program. You can get a bow-to-stern check of the condition and
safety equipment on your boat—from canoe to a 65' yacht - from a
qualified member of the USCGA or USPS. It's by far your best way to
learn about safety problems or possible violations before they become a
problem on the water. Visit
for more details or to request a FREE Vessel Safety Check.
boat operator or owner, it's your responsibility to understand the
factors like prescription medications that can affect your safety, or
the safety of passengers or other boaters, on the water. That's why at
the Coast Guard we say, "You're in Command. Boat Safety!"
Enjoy your time on the water. But never Boat Under the influence of alcohol,
drugs or prescription medications. For more boating safety information
and resources, visit