Authorities remind sailors of drunken boating rules ahead of holiday weekend

Tomas Rodriguez
Naples Daily News

When Alex Otte, president for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, was 13, an intoxicated boater slammed into her, causing numerous injuries that led to the partial amputation of her right leg. 

Otte was jet skiing on the lake near her Kentucky home when a drunken boater crashed into her at nearly 70 mph and racked up the injuries: severe brain injury; a broken neck and collarbone; a shattered jaw; a lacerated liver; and two shattered femurs.

Now, 12 years later, her organization is one of several nonprofits and law enforcement agencies advocating for boating safety as the July 4 weekend approaches.

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Lee County has 7,321 registered pleasure craft less than 12 feet, while Collier County boasts 4,730. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports that Lee County has about 50,000 registered vessels total, ranking third in the state.

"Our national president, Alex Otte ... She's the victim of a boating under [the] influence crash when she was much younger," said Larry Coggins, regional executive director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Florida and Puerto Rico. "[She] lost part of her leg because of a drunk boater ... So it's something that we're very serious about and is to the forefront of our initiative to never operate a motor vehicle impaired."

BUI = DUI

Coggins reminds boaters that boating under the influence, or "BUI," is equivalent to driving under the influence.

"It is extremely dangerous on the waters to drive and operate a boat impaired as it is on the roads to operate a vehicle impaired," he said.

The Cape Coral Police Department's volunteer marine division patrols the city's waterways in  this December 2018 file photo.

Coggins said the consequences extend far beyond a simple crash.

"Not only could it be a boat crash," Coggins said. "Someone could drown. These are things that people don't think about."

In fact, operating a vessel under the influence is just as punishable under law as is driving under the influence, Coggins said.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, as well as Cape Coral Police, are among the local law enforcement agencies ensuring boaters' safety.

"We do have marine units that are going to be actively patrolling," said Brandon Sancho, spokesperson for Cape Coral Police. "They're going to be patrolling the waterways just to make sure that people are safe when they are bating."

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Cape Canals enforcement

Cape Coral borders the Gulf of Mexico and has more than 300 miles of canals.

Sancho added that Cape Coral Police regularly has marine units patrolling the waterways.

"It is something Monday through Friday that they continuously do," Sancho said. "They're actively looking for violations for speeders, enforcing boating safety, any statutes in regards to that, and also boating under the influence."

He added that those in violation could face further penalties.

"If they're boating under the influence, they would be taken to jail at the Lee County Jail and they'd be booked directly," Sancho said.

Sancho says he's aware of a possible increase in traffic on the roadways and waterways during the holiday, and added that officers are ready to respond.

"We're going to just make sure that these people, these possible individuals that could be under the influence, are not directly affecting those who are not and just going about their day," Sancho said.

Water safety

Other local groups work to educate sailors on the importance of operating a vessel under the influence.

"Many people don't realize how alcohol can affect you, especially while you're out on the water," said Daniel Eaton, spokesperson for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary in Fort Myers Beach.

The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary is the U.S. Coast Guard's civilian uniformed volunteer arm. They educate the public and prevent incidents.

"Especially here in Florida, combined with the heat and the wind and everything else, it really kind of affects your judgment," Eaton said. "The big thing is you end up making some decisions that you might not have made while you were not under the influence."

Eaton emphasizes it's all about choices.

"We share the waterway ... You're not out there alone," Eaton said. "You're hopefully trusting that other boater that's driving by as well."

The Cape Coral Police Department's volunteer marine division patrols the city's waterways in  this December 2018 file photo.

Designated boater

Since the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators established Operation Dry Water in 2009, Eaton says they've continuously seen a decrease in these types of incidents locally.

Eaton added that it's not illegal to have alcohol on the boat, but one should have a designated driver much like on the road.

"It's fairly simple. The life you save may be your own," Eaton said. "Sometimes the boater takes things for granted, meaning they're gonna go out ... They're gonna have a good time and everybody's gonna come back." 

According to a press release issued by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, the leading cause of fatalities in Florida is drowning with 73% not wearing a life jacket. Additionally, in 2021, 83% of people in boating accident fatalities didn't take a boating safety class.

Operation Dry Water begins Saturday and runs through Monday with heightened enforcement.

Tomas Rodriguez is a Breaking/Live News Reporter for the Naples Daily News and The News-Press. You can reach Tomas at TRodriguez@gannett.com or 772-333-5501. Follow him on Twitter @TomasFRoBeltran.