When the weather is warm and you’re out in your kayak fishing or paddling around with friends and soaking in the scenery, cracking open a beer or sipping a glass of wine seems like a perfect addition to the fun you’re having.
But is drinking while kayaking a completely harmless activity or can it land you a steaming pot of legal soup?
In this article, I’m going to share everything you need to know about drinking while kayaking to help you stay safe and avoid getting into trouble.
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- Can you get a DUI on a kayak?
- Does your kayak qualify as a “vessel” under BUI laws?
- Can you drink and kayak?
- What is the blood alcohol limit for a BUI?
- Can you get a BUI while high on marijuana or other drugs?
- What are the risks and dangers of drinking and kayaking?
- What are the penalties for kayaking under the influence?
- Can you get a BUI while kayaking in a private lake or pond?
- Who can cite you for boating while intoxicated?
- Are BUI laws the same in every state?
- How to avoid getting a BUI on a kayak?
- What to do if you get stopped for a BUI on a kayak?
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Yes, you can get a DUI while paddling in a kayak if the police determine that you are not sober enough to safely navigate the waters with it.
However, when it involves watercraft, the charge is not called DUI, but BUI which means Boating Under the Influence. In some states, it is called BWI which stands for Boating While Intoxicated.
A BUI is very similar to a DUI. The core difference between the two is that BUI refers to the law that prohibits anyone from operating a vessel while intoxicated, whereas DUI deals with operating motor vehicles under the influence.
You can be arrested for a BUI if you get caught in a kayak with a blood alcohol content that is above the legal limit. In some states, you can still get a BUI for drinking even if you are below the legal limit as long as you are found incapable of operating your kayak safely.
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There’s a lot of ambiguity in the law about what should be considered a vessel, but this confusion does not apply to motorized vessels.
What this means is that even if all you’re doing is fishing or bobbing around a lake in a kayak with a trolling motor, you’re going to be treated the same as if you were operating a speed boat or an ocean fishing boat. So if you’re drunk on your motorized kayak, that’s an automatic BUI.
While the wording of the law in some states explicitly mentions “motorized vessels” or excludes “non-motorized, powered by oar or paddle, and manual powered vessels” like kayaks, most just refer to “anyone operating any vessel”.
This leaves the law open to interpretation by those with the duty to enforce it. This means that depending on how the police in your state interpret the statute, you can get hit with a BUI even if your kayak isn’t powered by a motor.
Even if you were ignorant of the law or you interpreted it in a way that excludes your type of kayak, you’re still going to get charged in court.
You also need to be mindful of your state’s open container laws for watercraft. In some states, it’s okay to have an open container of alcohol on a kayak or boat as long as it is out of your reach.
But in some other states, just having alcohol on your kayak is enough to earn you a BUI regardless of whether you were drinking from it or not.
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Technically, it’s legal to drink and kayak as long as you’re not under the influence and can safely paddle your kayak without harming yourself or someone else. However, ethically, it’s not a good idea to drink before going out on the water or while you’re floating down the river
There’s no way of knowing for certain which drink is going to impair you or put you over the legal limit. So you’re better off not taking any chances.
Stay sharp and clear-headed by avoiding alcohol completely.
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For most states in the U.S., the legal blood alcohol limit for paddling a kayak or operating a water vessel is the same as the limit for driving.
You are considered legally impaired and incapable of safely handling a kayak, whitewater raft, or paddleboard if you have a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08% or 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood.
Some States like Colorado, Wyoming, and North Dakota have a higher BAC limit of 0.10% for operating a boat than a motor vehicle. Others like Utah have a lower BAC limit of 0.05% for operating a boat and a car.
The rules about BAC limits for boating are subject to change, so do some digging for yourself to confirm where your state’s BUI laws stand.
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To reach or go over the standard 0.08% BAC limit, the average person would typically have to consume two drinks within an hour or two. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a “drink” is defined as:
- one 5-ounce glass of wine containing 12% alcohol
- one 12-ounce beer containing 5% alcohol
- one 1.5-ounce shot of 80-proof liquor/distilled spirits containing 40% alcohol
But your weight, race, gender, metabolism, stress level, what you’ve eaten that day, and a host of other factors also influence your blood alcohol level or how quickly you become impaired.
Without doing a blood test or blowing into a breathalyzer, you can’t know the exact amount of alcohol in your blood so you might be over the limit even if you don’t feel drunk.
The only way to be sure that you’re not endangering anyone is to not drink at all before or while kayaking. But if you must drink, make sure you leave plenty of time between your last drink and when your float trip begins. The standard rule is at least one hour of recovery time per drink.
Don’t let popular sayings like “Don’t Drink and Drive” fool you into thinking the law is only referring to alcohol intoxication. Just like with DUIs, BUI laws in most cases consider under the influence to mean alcohol and any other substance that can compromise your ability to efficiently steer your kayak.
This includes marijuana, methamphetamine, LSD, magic mushrooms, and even sleepy-time cough medicine. Just remember if it makes you feel euphoric or messes with your body’s regular functions, you’re considered under the influence of that substance.
So if you get caught in that state, you can get cited with a BUI.
Having a beer or two before going kayaking or while you’re out on the water might seem like harmless fun but things can get ugly really fast, turning a day of relaxation into a nightmare.
So before you decide to drink and paddle, here are some of the ways that having alcohol in your system can impact your paddling experience.
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You’re more likely to get drunk faster on the water than on land. The wind, sun, and waves combined with the energy you need to exert to paddle your kayak can leave you dehydrated and exhausted, and cause alcohol to have more influence on you.
While you might be able to enjoy a couple of drinks over a period of time on land and still be able to function normally, consuming the same amount of drinks in the same period of time on a kayak can leave you more intoxicated and significantly impaired.
Alcohol is one of the leading causes of fatal boating accidents, alongside speed, inattention, and inexperience. According to the 2020 Recreational Boating Statistics, alcohol was the primary contributory factor in boating accidents and fatalities.
What’s more, the Coast Guard warns that boating while intoxicated can be very dangerous. This is because boat operators who have a blood alcohol content of 0.10% or higher are up to 10 times more likely to be killed in boating accidents than those who are sober.
What’s more, when you’re drunk on the water and get into an accident, no one might be around to notice that you’re in need of assistance. Help may take a long time in getting to you, so if it was a matter of life and death, you are probably going to lose.
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Kayaking requires you to stay alert and observant because nature is full of surprises. A warm sunny day can quickly change into a storm, and you need to be able to sense this and any other impending disaster and take action to ensure your safety.
But when you’ve been drinking, your brain takes a longer time to process information because alcohol is a depressant that slows down your central nervous system. This means you won’t notice things like incoming danger, pain, or tiredness as quickly.
Your awareness will suffer, leaving you with little time to react to whatever is happening. And when you do react, the loss of coordination and impaired motor skills can leave plenty of room for mistakes.
Water is wobbly by nature so you’re going to be more unsteady in a kayak than if you were driving a car on land. Alcohol disrupts the workings in your inner ear, making it easier to lose your balance and overturn your kayak.
Intoxication can also affect your vision and make it difficult for you to focus your eyes or even process what you’re seeing. In kayaking and other watersports, the ability to see your surroundings and fully understand them is crucial for your safety and survival.
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Liquid courage can be a good thing when you’re trying to work up the strength to approach someone you like, but when you’re on or in the water, it can be a recipe for disaster.
Alcohol can inflate your confidence, making you believe you can do things that you wouldn’t attempt if you were sober. It can reduce your inhibitions and push you to take risks with no care for the consequences.
For example, you can go exploring waters you’ve never been in before or think you are an advanced kayaker that can withstand stronger and rougher currents even though you don’t have the skills or experience.
Alcohol can impair your memory, depth perception, field of vision, and ability to identify colors, all of which are potentially lifesaving capabilities when you’re on or in water. Your diminished mental capacity and lack of concentration can cause you to drive recklessly, resulting in collisions.
If you end up falling into the water and are unable to perform a self-rescue in your kayak, you are more likely to drown because your ability to swim well might be impaired. Alcohol can also lower your body temperature, increasing the risk of hypothermia if you fall and stay in cold water for too long.
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The penalties for boating while intoxicated differ from state to state, but they are usually the same as the penalties for a DUI. The severity of the legal consequences you will face for a BUI charge will depend on whether it’s your first, second, or repeat offense.
Here are some penalties you can typically expect to receive:
- First BUI – A night in jail with the option to post bond ($250-$750), your kayak being impounded for 1-30 days, and a fine ranging from $200-$1000. Since it’s typically a misdemeanor, you will be facing jail time of up to six months. However, with a good lawyer and no criminal record, it is highly unlikely that you will serve time for your first offense.
- Second BUI – A fine ranging from $500-$1000, community service, your kayak getting impounded for 30 days, 6-12 months of probation, and up to one year of jail time.
- Third (or more) BUI – You will be considered a repeat offender and charged more seriously. You could be facing a minor felony charge, a fine ranging from $1000-$5000, your kayak being impounded for up to 90 days, and anywhere from three months to five years of prison time.
- Extenuating Circumstances – Delaware and some other states may penalize you with more fines and prison time if you were in the kayak with kids at the time of your BUI arrest.
- BUI Accidents – If your kayak is involved in an accident while you are under the influence you may face extra charges. If the accident resulted in a fatality or serious injury and destruction of property, you will be charged with a first, second, or third-degree felony with the potential of 1-30 years in jail.
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In some states, drinking and boating is banned only on public waterways. And in some others, it’s banned everywhere within the state so the answer depends on what state you’re in.
However, it can be difficult to enforce BUI laws on private properties because most law enforcement officials won’t be able to access your pond or lake.
But if you are involved in an accident while kayaking on private property and injuries or property damage occurs, you might still be open to criminal and civil liabilities.
Police officers aren’t the only ones who can arrest you or give you a citation for a BUI. Other local, state, and federal law enforcement officers like sheriffs, park rangers, fish and game wardens, and the Coast Guard also have the power to cite you for a BUI if they suspect you are under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.
BUI laws differ from state to state, but they all share a few similarities. However, I recommend researching and understanding the specific laws that apply to your state.
Check out the BoatEd website to find an exhaustive list of the boating laws in each state.
The only foolproof way to escape being cited with a BUI is to not drink any alcohol before or while operating your kayak.
But in the event that you do drink, try sticking to one or two drinks spread out over a few hours and allow plenty of time to pass between when you drink and when you resume kayaking.
When you are approached by a law enforcement official who catches you drinking on the water or suspects that you are under the influence, being cooperative and civil can save you from being cited with a BUI. You might get sent off with a warning instead.
In some states, you have the freedom to refuse to comply with a field sobriety test without facing any criminal penalty. However, in other states, refusing a field sobriety test would result in you losing your driver’s license and spending a night in jail.
If you do end up being charged with a DUI on a kayak, be sure to hire a lawyer right away. A lawyer might be able to get you off with no criminal charges and zero prison time.
It’s not a good idea to mix alcohol and kayaking because you can get hit with a BUI on your kayak and incur a wide range of legal consequences as a result.
You can play fun outdoor games and have a great time on the water with your friends and family, or even by yourself without drinking.