Steamboat Springs Park rangers are warning that the strenuous activity and disorienting effects of water recreation, such as unsteady legs, can make a day of boating and drinking dangerous and potentially deadly.
"Out in the sun all day, there's wind, there's exertion, and all those things are going to break you down, and (the alcohol) is going to have more of an effect on you than if you're at home watching a ballgame," said Mark Lehman, Stagecoach State Park ranger.
Colorado's boating under the influence laws became more strict in August, when the threshold for boating under the influence declined from .10 blood alcohol content to match the state's driving under the influence laws at .08 BAC.
Lehman said the new law gives rangers more leeway in determining whether a boater is intoxicated. Rangers at local parks said boating under the influence has not been a major problem on the water, but the severity of the dangers means they will continue to check boaters as the season warms up.
The ways of determining a potentially drunken boater are similar to tests used on roadside sobriety checks, but identifying drunken pilots is harder on water than on the roads, Lehman said.
"As far as enforcement goes, it's kind of a tough one because it's not like detecting a drunk driver on the road," he said. "There they are weaving and crossing over the lines, whereas those same things are pretty much the nature of boating."
Matt Schuler, Steamboat State Lake Park ranger, said many of the tests are similar to roadside sobriety tests.
"We do safety inspections on people, and if somebody is acting carelessly or recklessly, or they're jumping a wake of another boat, or too close to people on shore, : we'll stop them and do a safety inspection," he said. Lehman said the tests usually include a 20-minute wait on shore to remove the possibility that a person is only off-balance because of being on the water, then a series of sobriety tests. Rangers can contact boaters either on the water or at the marina.
If rangers determine there is probable cause that the pilot is intoxicated, they have the authority to arrest the person and take them to the Routt County Jail for a breath test.
Sentences for first-time offenders range from five days to six months in jail, and a fine of $100 to $1,000, as many as two years probation and a mandatory three-month ban on boating in state waters.
All vessels included
One of the biggest changes to the boating regulations that passed last year was a change in terminology about the kind of craft that applies to BUI regulations. The new language expands "sailboats and motorboats" to any "vessels" on the water, including inflatable craft.
"Now, any person operating or in physical control of any vessel can be arrested. That includes watercraft operated by motor, wind, paddle and oar; such as jet skis, sailboats, motorboats, kayaks, canoes and rafts," the Colorado State Parks Web site states.
Even with the increase in watercrafts to police, the rangers said they did not anticipate problems on the lakes this year. There have been no BUI arrests in the past two years at Steamboat Lake, Schuler said. Lehman said there was one arrest at Stagecoach Reservoir at the end of last boating season, but no others in the past two years that he was aware of.
"Fortunately at our lake, no, it is not a major problem," Schuler said. "We have a pretty safe lake; we don't have a lot of reckless boaters."
Lehman said he thinks there are more intoxicated boaters than the rangers are able to catch but again said there have not been major problems. Staff at both lakes will start a public education campaign in the coming weeks to inform boaters about the new regulations. Rangers will be on the lakes throughout the holiday weekends this summer.