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Boating and drinking? You better avoid Canadian waters

Here is a lesson boaters on Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the Niagara River may not know.

No open container of alcohol is allowed on board a boat in Canadian waters.

“It doesn’t take much for boaters to drift into Canadian water,” said Lt. Ronald Steen of the Niagara County Sheriffs Office Marine Patrol. “If you’re not aware of the international border, you could go into Canadian waters and not realize it. The difference in the laws concerning alcohol could present a problem.”

Niagara Regional Police enforce the prohibition of alcohol on runabout boats. Larger vessels a person can live aboard – equipped with a kitchen, bathroom and sleeping area – can have alcohol on board for consumption while the vessel is moored or anchored. But no one can drink alcohol while a boat is moving.

“Unless you have a galley or kitchen, you cannot have open alcohol on a boat,” said Sgt. Richard Lauricella, who heads the Erie County Sheriff’s Office Marine Unit. “An open container – if the seal is broken – is not allowed on board a vessel in Canadian waters.

New York State is more lenient.

A boater in New York waters is allowed to operate a vessel while consuming alcohol but not while impaired or intoxicated.

Boating while intoxicated mirrors driving while intoxicated, with a threshold of intoxication of 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content.

Yet detecting a drunken boater on water is more difficult than detecting a drunken motorist on land.

It was obvious to Chautauqua County deputies that they had a drunk boater when they discovered a 27-year-old man slumped over the handlebars of his personal watercraft 200 feet offshore on Chautauqua Lake in the early morning hours last month. The Colorado man was charged with boating while intoxicated.

But police still need probable cause to stop a boater.

“It’s not like a car, where you have to navigate between lines,” said Chautauqua County Sheriff Joseph Gerace. “If boaters are coming down the lake highly inebriated without reckless operation or a crash, that would be very difficult to patrol.”

Deputies need a reason to pull over a boater.

“Almost always, BWI is accompanied by another violation because we can stop boats for equipment checks,” Lauricella said.

That was the case for two Buffalo men stopped in separate incidents on the Niagara River for faulty navigation lights. After pulling over the boaters, deputies determined each was inebriated.

“We talk to the operator, and if we feel he may be intoxicated, we’ll bring him on our vessel for safety reasons,” Lauricella said. “It also offers a controlled environment, but you can’t test balance because of the wind and waves.”

Other tests for sobriety – like touching your thumb to each finger and counting at the same time – can be administered.

Boaters have the right to refuse a sobriety test, Lauricella said. But if that happens, the boater can be given a summons for common law BWI, and the state automatically suspends the privilege of operating a motorboat.

“Boaters do not have a license,” Lauricella said. “When you sign your boater registration, you consent to obey the state navigational laws.”

Last year, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office Marine Unit logged more than 3,400 hours patrolling 90 miles of Erie County waterways. It conducted 25 search-and-rescue missions and issued 165 summonses. The most common infractions were unregistered boats, reckless boating and insufficient or no visual distress equipment on board vessels.

If last month is any indication, there has been an uptick in boating while intoxicated locally. Erie County Sheriff’s deputies made four arrests for drunken boating all of last year.

So far this year, four BWI arrests have already been logged.

One boater was arrested last week at the docks of the New York State Barge Canal near the City of Tonawanda boating docks, Lauricella said. After determining the boater was intoxicated, deputies took him to the Grand Island substation to administer the breath test.

The effects of consuming alcohol on a boat can be intensified by natural forces, said Steen of the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol.

“Being on the water compounds the effects of alcohol,” Steen said. “The motion of the waves, vibration of the engines and, of course, the sun and wind all decrease your tolerance to alcohol. After a boat is stopped and a boater is suspected of being intoxicated, a battery of sobriety tests are performed on our vessel. We’ll take them to shore and do another battery of tests, but first, we give them time to get their equilibrium adjusted to the land.”