Intoxicated Pilots Test Idea That Drinking And Boating Can't Mix

Editors Of 'Boating Magazine' Found Reflexes Slowed With Each Drink

September 12, 1990|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff writer

Kenny Wooton and Shaw McCutcheon stood on a dock yesterday surrounded by police officers and blew into a machine that would measure how much alcohol they had consumed during the past couple hours.

They both turned out to be legally impaired, but not quite legally drunk. So Cpl. Mark Sanders, a Department of Natural Resources police officer, tossed them another drink. McCutcheon had a Heineken and Wooton had a gin and tonic.

The two editors from "Boating Magazine" then climbed into a 22-foot speed boat and took off into the Rhode River to try once again to negotiate an obstacle course set up to test how well they could drive while intoxicated.

From a distance, it appeared they didn't do too badly. But to Sanders, who rode with the two drunk drivers, there were some obvious problems, such as running over a dummy thrown into the water to simulate a man overboard.

"They performed the tests OK," Sanders said. "But they were very slow and deliberate. When they had to do more than one thing at once, such as turn the wheel and shift, they were totally unacceptable. If they had to talk and drive at the same time, they couldn't do it."

And that was after each man had four drinks spaced over two and a half hours. After downing five drinks in three hours, Wooton and McCutcheon slurred their words and were unsteady on their feet. On the water, they drove through the slalom course, but had problems docking and backing up the boat.

The afternoon of drinking and boating was a scenario designed by "Boating Magazine," a New York-based national publication for boating enthusiasts. Wooton plans to write an article based on his experiences.

The exercise provided the DNR police with a way to demonstrate the dangers of drunk boating, a growing problem that claims half the lives of people involved in boating accidents in Maryland, officials said. And natural resources police have stepped up their enforcement efforts in recent years.

Just two years ago, only 52 people were arrested for driving boats while under the influence of alcohol. That figure jumped to 136 in fiscal year 1990, which ended June 30.

"We've put a lot more emphasis on it in recent years," said Cpl. Ralph Parker, spokesman for the DNR police. "There are a lot of contributing factors, one being that we are much better trained than we used to be.

"It seems to be the American thing to do," Parker said. "Go out boating and take a few beers with you. We don't want to take alcohol out of the water. We want to make sure those that are operating the boats can get back safely." One problem for DNR police, he said, is that it can be difficult to detect a drunk boater. Unlike car drivers, boaters don't have to contend with traffic lights, intersections and lanes. Parker said police watch for excessive speed, erratic behavior and driving at night without lights.

Police can also stop boats for not having proper license or registration tags displayed, or even just to conduct safety checks.

The experiment conducted by "Boating Magazine" was not scientific. The drinking pace increased toward the end of the day and Wooton and McCutcheon soon got familiar with the sobriety tests the officers conducted.

Both men also were experienced boaters, the water was calm and the police kept all other boats out of the area. Under normal circumstances, police say, the drunk boaters would have been trying to negotiate through crowded waterways under less-than-ideal conditions while not paying 100 percent attention to their driving.

But the tests did show that even a few beers can affect performance. After two beers, each man passed the sobriety tests conducted by Cpl. Dennis Leland with blood-alcohol contents measured at .03 percent. A reading of .07 percent is considered legally impaired -- meaning a boater would be arrested -- and a reading of .10 percent is considered legally drunk, which would also result in arrest.

But even after the two beers, Sanders said he "could see the affects of the alcohol" on their performance.

After three drinks, both men's blood-alcohol contents measured .05 percent. "I can't imagine being twice this drunk at this point," McCutcheon said.

After four beers and a .07 percent reading on the Breathalyzer machine, McCutcheon said: "I'm at the high end of a party situation, but I'm still capable."

Leland answered: "You may feel that way, but I feel your ready for a ride."

"I feel like I'm on the edge," McCutcheon said. "If I drove a car or a boat right now, I would have to overcompensate. That can be just as dangerous. I would appreciate someone else to drive right now."

But no such luck. Both men downed another drink, climbed back into the boat and took off toward the course. They could get through the slalom course, but they failed while trying to back the boat up to buoys set up in the shape of an octagon.

And when the dummy was thrown overboard, McCutcheon ran over its legs trying to maneuver into a position to pick it up. When they got back to shore, McCutcheon's blood alcohol content measured .08 percent; Wooton's measured .09 percent.

While Wooton fared well on the sobriety tests on dry land, McCutcheon failed miserably -- he couldn't keep his balance for more than a few seconds and couldn't count to four. That's after five drinks spaced out over three hours and 45 minutes.

Then they each grabbed another drink -- just one more -- and prepared to go out and try it again -- this time driving while legally intoxicated.

The pair may have hangovers this morning, but it will be well worth it. "This is one way for us to get involved in what we see as a big problem in our sport," Wooton said.

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