Safe Boating

What to Know About Drinking and Boating: A Deadly Mix

A boat pulls someone on a waterski, avoid drinking and boating concept.

Before the thought of drinking on a boat crosses your mind, consider the physical and legal consequences of boating under the influence of alcohol. Not only is operating a boat while intoxicated illegal in all 50 states, but it's also dangerous and can have deadly consequences.

Now, you may think that drinking typically goes hand-in-hand with a lazy day in a boat on the lake – which is often the case with many boaters. However, before you assume boat drinking is a standard or safe practice, we hope you'll consider the insights we highlight today. 

As always, safety must be your first priority when operating a boat. Ensuring everyone wears a lifejacket on the boat is part of keeping everyone safe. Likewise, swapping out beer for soft drinks in your onboard cooler is also a worthwhile decision to help everyone return to the dock safely.

Here's what you should know!

What Does the Law Say?

In addition to federal laws against operating a watercraft under the influence, various states also have laws and penalties prohibiting drunken boating. 

Depending on where you live and boat, you could be subject to harsh penalties if you boat while your blood alcohol level is .08 percent or above. The legal consequences of drinking while boating range from large fines to jail time and even suspension of your driver's license. 

Yes, officials can suspend the license that allows you to drive a car if you have a BUI (boating under the influence). 

To find your state's Boating Under the Influence (BUI) laws, head over to our BUI law page.

Is Drinking On a Boat Really That Dangerous? 

It's not uncommon to see boaters with a beer in hand throughout the boating season. However, if you plan to drive the boat (rather than simply come along for the ride), it's best to replace that alcoholic beverage with a Coke or bottle of water. 

According to the latest U.S. Coast Guard report, in 2022, alcohol use was the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents. Where the primary cause was known, alcohol was noted as the leading factor in 16% of deaths. 

So, can you drink and drive a boat? You could – but since it's against the law in every state and is the leading cause of deaths when boating, it's a safer idea to leave the alcohol on the dock to enjoy after you return from a safe day on the water. 

How Does Alcohol Affect Boaters? 

The statistics we noted above are no surprise, considering how alcohol affects your balance, vision, and judgment on land. These impairments are intensified out on the water. 

In fact, the U.S. Coast Guard states that "a boat operator with a blood alcohol concentration above .10 percent is estimated to be more than 10 times as likely to die in a boating accident than an operator with zero blood alcohol concentration."

An infographic showing alcohol-related boating death statistics for 2022, avoid drinking on a boat concept.

Can Passengers Drink on a Boat? 

If you're not operating the boat (and don't plan to drive it while on the water), is it okay to drink alcohol while on the boat? 

If you're simply along for the ride and won't be needed to drive the boat – and you don't plan to engage in watersports, like waterskiing or jetskiing during your day on the water – it is not illegal to drink on a boat. You must also be at least 21 years old to consume alcohol (on or off a boat). 

However, safe boating means sober boating. So, while it may be tempting to crack open a can of beer while cruising, keep in mind that your record, license, and life may be at stake – even if you aren't the driver! Passengers should stay alert and aware to help keep everyone safe on the water. 

Learn Boater Safety Essentials with Boat-Ed

Understanding the dangers of boating and drinking is only one aspect of safe boating. Before launching for the first time this season, make sure you've taken an approved boater safety course and received your certification. 

Boat-Ed partners with states to offer the easiest way to work through a boater education course and take the required exam – all online. It's convenient and prepares you with the certification you need to boat safely and comply with state requirements. Find your course and start today! 


Originally published June 3, 2015. Content updated February 19, 2024.