BUI and the Holidays


As a traditional pastime, during our vacations, many of us go on a boat for the adventure. Oftentimes that boat ride includes the consumption of alcohol. But many people do not know that the conditions that support a DWI for driving also are applicable to the operation of boats.

There is a legal limit on how much alcohol that can be in the blood of the operating driver of the vehicle. In NC, that legal limit is .08%. Therefore, if the operator is above that limit, they will be subject to BUI charges. The language of the statute also does not restrict the impairing substance to just alcohol, therefore, other drugs that impair perception may cause a violation.

Alcohol consumption generally affects the balance of the operator, their vision, their coordination, and most importantly their judgment. US Coast Guard data shows that of all the boating related incidents and deaths, at least half have involved the consumption of alcohol. The effects of alcohol are exacerbated because of the conditions on water: high buoyance, perhaps a loud engine, the beating sun and wind will affect the operator’s perception and coordination. Being impaired while in this environment is not an ideal situation. The US Coast Guard suggests that it is a major concern because boaters are generally less experienced and less confident on the water in their skills versus driving on a highway (which is generally more commonplace). Alcohol increases the risk of causing an accident and even capsizing the boat. In fact, when weighed alongside the fact that the average recreational boater only has 110 hours of time on the water, alongside their impairment, the combination of alcohol impairment and inexperience is a major factor in boating accidents.

So what are the consequences of operating a vessel while under the influence? North Carolina General Statute § 75A-10 lays out the requirements and penalties for operating a vessel in a reckless manner or while intoxicated. It specifically bars any person from operating the vessel under the influence of any impairing substance. A person who is found in violation under this statute is guilty of a Class 2 Misdemeanor, which may be punishable with a fine of at least $250.00. Generally, once the Coast Guard or related authorities stop an intoxicated operator of a vessel, they will perform the standard tests for intoxication both on the water and then again on land. The North Carolina Vessel Operator’s Guide created by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, establishes and extends the restrictions:

‘No person shall operate any motorboat or vessel, or manipulate any water skis, surfboard, or similar device while under the influence of an impairing substance, nor operate any motor vessel after consuming alcohol sufficient to cause a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or greater.’

The Guide also gives important information related to the maintenance, other safety regulations and required equipment necessary for private ownership. There may be more serious consequences based upon the circumstances.

If the Coast Guard or the local authorities make a stop and arrest an impaired operator, the boat can be moored by a sober passenger (and one who is licensed to operate a vessel) or by the Coast Guard.

With that said, how does one avoid getting a BUI? First, the general rule is to be responsible. Knowing your limits while on an impairing substance and having the responsibility to not operate a vessel while impaired is key. Second, if alcohol is involved in your trip, plan to have the consumption on land and stay on the shore. This way you’ll avoid operating a vehicle altogether. Additionally, if you are going on the water, have a designated driver and do not carry any alcoholic beverages on board with you.

Lastly, if alcoholic beverages are consumed, do not attempt to operate the vessel. Additionally, do not enter the water; the dangers of the water are diminished to a person in an intoxicated state and can lead to potential injury or drowning. Even if the vessel is anchored, the person may drift far away from the boat into dangerous territory.