Drinking and boating? Better not around here

Drunken boaters in Jackson County and across the country may find themselves finishing the weekend in a jail cell this week under a nationwide push to highlight sober-boating laws.

Marine patrols will be out in force today through Sunday in all 50 states during an effort dubbed Operation Dry Water, separating boozers from their boats just before the Fourth of July height of the summer boating season.

In Oregon, this fourth annual effort is a joint program of the Oregon State Marine Board, the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, the U.S. Coast Guard and local county marine patrols.

It comes on the heels of a new Coast Guard study showing that boating fatalities in 2011 were the highest since 1998 and that drunken boating was the leading contributing factor, according to the Marine Board.

Though alcohol historically has been common aboard boats of all sizes, the boating community over time has soured on those who overdo it and risk injuries to themselves and others.

Jackson County continues to lead Oregon in arrests for boating under the influence of intoxicants, and the most common violator might not be who you think.

It's not regular boaters or locals, but largely tourists who rarely visit the Rogue River but find a few too many beers under the hot sun magnify their lack of understanding of navigating whitewater, authorities say.

"They just tip a few too many and don't understand the river," says Jackson County Sheriff's Lt. Pat Rowland, whose marine patrol program will have three boats patrolling the Rogue and local lakes this weekend.

"Then they're driving after that," Rowland says. "That's what we're afraid of."

Under Oregon law, boat operators are allowed to drink alcohol and possess open containers on boats. However, boat operators cannot be under the influence — meaning their blood-alcohol level cannot be above the same .08 percent threshold for drunken driving. Also, those with a lower blood-alcohol level face arrest if they are impaired.

Statewide BUII arrests peaked in 2000 with 254 arrests, but they have dropped consistently statewide.

Last year, Jackson County's 23 BUII arrests represented almost half the statewide number of 48 arrests, according to the Marine Board.

Between 2007 and 2011, Jackson County police logged 99 BUII arrests, with 81 coming on the Rogue, according to the Marine Board. Emigrant Lake was second with nine arrests, and Lost Creek Lake third with six in that time.

Marine Board spokeswoman Ashley Massey says Marine Board law-enforcement officials attribute Jackson County's higher arrest rates to their skill in spotting boozing boaters, field sobriety testing experience and saturation patrols.

Also, Rowland says local liveries that rent rafts to weekend floaters do a good job at drumming in the boat-sober mantra and that has helped reduce arrests.

But those who run afoul of BUII laws face sobering fines.

Upon arrests, boats can be seized and suspects jailed.

In Jackson County, all BUII suspects typically are cited for Class A misdemeanors. The Jackson County District Attorney's Office has the option of reducing it to a violation.

A Class A misdemeanor can lead to punishments as high as a year in jail, a $6,250 fine and a loss of boating privileges for up to three years, according to the Marine Board.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or email mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

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