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BOATING WITH BARB - The near ‘zero-tolerance’ laws surrounding drinking and boating

RCMP are committed to keeping the waters safe by targeting impaired boating. (RCMP)

By Barb Thomson

Special to Black Press

A few weeks ago, I noticed a booth set up near the ramp to the Comox Fisherman’s Wharf. Two women stood in front of a table of pamphlets and various giveaway items, representing the Comox Valley Chapter of MADD, the acronym for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Maybe you’re thinking oh here comes another finger-wagging killjoy on the pleasures of a cold beer onboard. We already know impaired boating is illegal and only certain conditions allow the legal consumption of alcohol on boats. But some of those conditions may surprise you.

But first a look at our heritage of booze on boats. In an archived Smithsonian article, writer Julia Blakely opens with this: “Brewing and seafaring are mainstays of ancient human endeavors.” (Beer on Board in the Age of Sail) From records dating back to the 1600s, mariners used beer as an alternative to fresh water and a solution to scurvy. What Blakely’s article does for us today is set out how long and powerful the historical link has been between alcohol and boating: not as a pleasant sundowner beverage, but as a barrier to thirst, disease, and a very unpleasant death.

The Canadian Criminal Code defines an offence as anyone who “operates a conveyance while the person’s ability to operate it is impaired to any degree by alcohol or a drug or by a combination of alcohol and a drug.”

Any watercraft can be considered a “conveyance.” (Canadian Safe Boating Council) Drinking is only legal on boats with these permanent fixtures: a galley, toilet, sleeping quarters, and only when the boat is anchored or docked. This type of boat is considered a private “home” setting where drinking is unrestricted. However, not many boaters know that if two vessels are rafted together, they are no longer classified by law as private, and can now be considered an open “public space” where drinking alcohol is prohibited except by special licence.

I contacted Leslie Wells, the president of our local MADD Chapter, who stated that “MADD is interested in preventing tragedies on the roads, water, and in the forest.”

This was their first MADD booth at the marina, and they plan to install a large permanent sign on the dock asking people to report concerns about impaired boaters by calling 911. Wells’ message is “Don’t operate a boat of any kind or size if you are impaired. Even if you are at anchor, be careful.”

Barb Thomson is a boating enthusiast who writes regular columns for the Comox Valley Record.