Boating Under the Influence

Boating Under the Influence
Lake Havasu: On holidays like Memorial Day weekend, "it's pandemonium out here," says California Det. Mike Fassari, who estimates there were 40,000 boats on the lake.
Todd Bigelow

06/16/2003 AT 12:00 PM EDT

Half-naked partyers guzzle beer by the case and writhe to booming rap; scores of sports boats and cabin cruisers drift into a teeming mass: Welcome to another summer weekend on Lake Havasu. California sheriff's deputies Ron Wells and Chuck Watson maneuver their patrol boat into the bacchanalia and around the hundreds of vessels moored just feet apart in one of the lake's notorious party spots. They're looking for trouble, and find it along the lake when two men on a Jet Ski make a turn so sharp one of them flies off. "How much have you had to drink?" Wells asks the driver. "Over the course of the day, a six-pack, maybe," he replies. A screening test shows his blood alcohol level is .133, beyond the legal .08 limit and enough to arrest him for BUI – boating under the influence. "He's a good kid and he was just having fun," says Wells. "But better he go to jail for a BUI than for manslaughter."

As they head into another summer season, authorities across the country are cracking down on drunken boaters to stem a rising tide of alcohol-related accidents and deaths. According to the Coast Guard, 34 percent of the 681 boating fatalities in 2001 most likely involved alcohol, up 8 percent from 2000. Last year at Lake Havasu, one of the nation's deadliest boating areas, six of seven fatalities were caused by drunken boaters. "No food, too much sun, lots of liquor, and that's all it takes," says Watson, 54, part of a 50-person task force that patrols this resort area straddling the Arizona-California border. "We get people who have driven all night just to get here. They arrive at 5 in the morning, and by 6 they're already on their boats, drinking and partying."

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