Ahoy, me hearties. The seas may be higher than you think.
A special study by the National Transportation Safety Board has found that the leading cause of pleasure-boating accidents may be drunken sailors, and federal officials are laying plans to combat the problem in next year's boating season.
"Odds are you'll be stopped if you're weaving down a major highway; what about if you're weaving down a major waterway?" said Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Merchant Marine subcommittee on the Coast Guard and navigation. "Does the Coast Guard ever flag down a small-boat operator who's obviously intoxicated?"
Rear Adm. Joseph A. McDonough Jr., chief of the Coast Guard office of boating, public and consumer affairs, suggests not. "More likely we'd be boarding the boat for other reasons" and might find a drunken operator in the process, he said.
NTSB Chairman Jim Burnett said Coast Guard and state boating officials long have suspected alcohol use as "a major factor in the high number of recreational boating fatalities." But, he said, "representative and credible national statistics are not available."
The latest Coast Guard data indicate that only 6 percent of 1,178 recreational boating fatalities last year involved alcohol, according to the safety board. But the board's study said several states are reporting far higher percentages.
Maryland, it said, has found that 75 percent of pleasure boat mishaps in a three-year period involved alcohol; North Carolina reports that 38 percent of people killed in boating accidents had blood alcohol concentrations exceeding .1, which is the legal definition of intoxicated in that state.
Information provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control, the National Council on Alcoholism and the states indicated as many as 800 recreational boating fatalities a year may involve the use of alcohol.
Part of the reporting problem, the safety board said, is that the Coast Guard relies on voluntary reports in collecting accident data. The form lists 10 possible causes of an accident, but doesn't specifically list alcohol. The person reporting the accident can choose "other" without elaboration.
Burnett said the Coast Guard and the states should have uniform toxicological tests after boating fatalities. "Without these tests, it will be very difficult for the Coast Guard or the states to obtain conclusive information on the true impact of alcohol use in recreational boating accidents, fatalities and injuries."
Meanwhile, the safety board is pushing for educational programs to persuade boaters to lay off the grog. The National Boating Safety Council plans to stress alcohol in its programs, and the theme of National Boating Safety Week next year and in 1985 will be that boating and alcohol don't mix.
The safety board is also urging states to adopt definitions of intoxication for boat operators, just as they have for automobile drivers, and to provide for testing of boaters' alcohol levels.