Mix of alcohol, boating is a concern in Jacksonville area

By Larry Hannan

Lt. John Convoy looked outside Friday morning and saw a beautiful day without a cloud in the sky.

“That means it’s going to be a busy weekend for us,” said Convoy, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer who would be patrolling Jacksonville’s waterways this weekend.

With the weather warming and many sunny weekends ahead, Fish and Wildlife will be busy looking for boaters who are driving while intoxicated.

The issue gained attention on Easter when a 22-foot boat crashed into an Intracoastal Waterway construction site. Five people were killed and nine were injured. The attorney representing three of the victims said the driver of the vessel, who was killed, wasn’t intoxicated but alcohol was found on the boat.

Jim Suber, Jacksonville’s waterways coordinator/dockmaster and a former sheriff’s office marine unit sergeant, said there is a misconception issue.

“You have to remember that it’s not against the law to have an open container of alcohol in your boat,” Suber said. “Boating is recreational and it’s fun, and some people don’t think they have to be sober.”

Penalties for boating under the influence can include a fine of up to $1,000 and a maximum of six months in jail for a first-time offender. You are over the legal limit with a blood alcohol level of 0.08, as with a motor vehicle on the road.

Florida Fish and Wildlife made eight arrests last year for boating under the influence in Northeast Florida. Arrest numbers have decreased statewide over the past five years, from a high of 450 arrests in 2004 to a low of 226 in 2008.

The number of people killed in boating accidents in Florida decreased from 77 in 2007 to 53 in 2008.

As of April 14, 20 deaths have been reported in 2009, ahead of last year’s pace.

Karen Parker, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said, as of 2007, there are about 1 million boats registered in Florida.

It estimates there are another 350,000 unregistered boats in the state, including kayaks, canoes and other boats that are usually unregistered.

Attorney David Robbins, who specializes in representing people charged with driving under the influence, said a lot of people aren’t even aware that it is illegal to drive a boat while intoxicated.

But he expects more attention to be paid to the issue after the boat crash, and suspects law enforcement may crack down on boaters with more arrests.

Steve DeSimone, the day bartender at the Bridge Market & Bistro, which is next to the Palm Valley Bridge and near the site of the Easter crash, said the restaurant is vigilant about discouraging drinking and boating.

There is a boat dock outside the restaurant and a boat ramp next door.

They also will cut people off if they’ve had too much to drink, and refuse to serve people who come in from a boat and appear intoxicated, DeSimone said.

The restaurant also has a policy of only serving one drink for each person that presents an ID. That prevents someone from coming up and ordering from five to 10 drinks for a group of people.

Suber said he can remember a time when driving under the influence wasn’t seen as a big deal. Then groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and AAA Auto Club began publicizing the dangers and it became socially unacceptable.

Instructors are now trying to do the same thing with boating. Suber teaches boating safety and stressed the danger of driving a boat while intoxicated.

“I tell my students, if you’ve had a sip of beer, assume you’re under the influence,” he said. “People I taught have come back to me and said thank you for pointing that out, because they never thought about it before the class.”