By: Alan Jones, Executive editor of Boating World Magazine
I recently watched an online video that featured a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. His name is Mark Watts, and he ran one of the most successful waterski boat dealerships in the country. When I was with him on scenic trips to places such as Silver Glen and observed his interaction with his friends/customers, it was clear he was one of those charismatic people everyone wanted to be around. I use the past tense because instead of living and thriving in Orlando, the epicenter of the skiing world, Watts’ home is prison, where he’s serving a six-year sentence. His crime? Officially, three counts of boating under the influence after an accident that cost a 20-year-old athlete named Shelby Harper her life and seriously injured four others, including Watts. His permanently scarred face is no doubt a daily reminder of the day he chose to drive a boat while intoxicated and slammed into a dock early on a moonless morning on Lake Irma. As a condition of his sentence, to educate others about the consequences of BUI, Watts made a gut-wrenching video as part of a program called Operation Dry Water. (To see it, Google “Mark Watts ODW.”)
Thanks in part to the efforts of Operation Dry Water, a five-year-old program sponsored by NASBLA in partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard, deaths from alcohol-related boat accidents have steadily decreased, although alcohol remains the largest cause of boating deaths. Unlike while driving a car, it’s legal to drive a boat while drinking, as long as the driver doesn’t exceed the 0.08 threshold, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Other factors such as exposure to the sun and the motion of the boat accentuate the debilitating effects of alcohol, so drivers need to err on the side of caution. Better yet, the pilot should be the designated driver and not consume any alcohol until the boat is tied up to the dock. Passengers should monitor the captain’s intake as well. In the Watts incident, two guests opted out of the cruise when they saw him fall into the water when attempting to board. The decision may have saved their lives, and it’s a good lesson. If you feel as though your driver is impaired or is driving dangerously, ask to be put ashore or insist that an unimpaired driver take over. It’s awkward, but sometimes it’s the only way to stay safe. I did it one time during a feature story cruise when all of our boat’s running lights went out on a moonless night and the driver insisted on continuing the trip. I got off, stayed in a hotel and rented a car the next day. Expensive and a little embarrassing for all, but safer for me. They made the 70-mile nocturnal journey without incident, but I don’t regret doing it. The takeaway: Riders, don’t put yourself in a position to be a potential victim; drivers, don’t put others at risk. It’s that simple. It’s a lesson that, unfortunately, comes too late for some.