All Aboard With the Drunk Boating Cops
Summer is party season on America's waterways. It's also when the nation's boat cops practice a very different style of policing. The Fix rides along with the Austin Lake Patrol unit.
Pat Foster, an avid mariner who buys and repairs vessels as a hobby, plops a bulky bag onto the boat at Lake Austin Marina on Memorial Day Sunday. The bag is stuffed with all the usual supplies for a day out on the water—flippers, scuba goggles, snorkel. But it’s the black baton strapped to the side and a metal citation clipboard sticking out from the top that seem out of place.
Then there are the really cool, Air Force–style life jackets, with two strips that run down the chest like big suspenders, complete with Austin Police Department (APD) insignia. They inflate automatically when you hit the water or pull the cord. Putting it on over my tank top, I feel like a skinnier Bane, the villain from The Dark Knight Rises. All this adds up to one thing: This will be a different kind of police ridealong.
Everyone is laughing and smiling. Nearly everyone is drinking. And there’s nothing wrong, nor illegal, about that—unless you’re driving a boat.
Memorial Day weekend is when summer semi-officially begins for most of the country’s parks, lakes, and rivers. That’s certainly the case for the Austin area, home to Lady Bird Lake, Lake Austin, the Colorado River, and Lake Travis. For the public, it’s often the start of booze-fueled trips to the water that will peak in July and carry on into August. (Indeed, one local boat rental company is named “Aquaholics.”) But the start of summer also means the start of the boating while intoxicated (BWI) season for law enforcement.
According to the US Coast Guard, there are about 12 million registered recreational water vessels in the country—and the leading factor in all boat-related deaths is alcohol, although it only “leads” at 16%. As for accidents, injuries and deaths on the water with alcohol as a contributing factor, the national numbers have stayed relatively consistent. The median is about 153 deaths a year. Injuries: 388. Last year, Texas had 21 reported alcohol-related accidents, six deaths and 16 injuries.
APD’s aqua squad has four operational boats. On our three-hour tour, we’re joined by Foster’s partner, John O’Donnell, a four-year veteran of the Lake Patrol unit, and Pat Orborski, an officer from the city’s specialty DWI Enforcement Unit.
The weather on Friday and Saturday was crap, so “they’re making up for it today,” says Foster, as we cruise down the lake. The waterway itself is fairly open. Both Foster and O’Donnell seem much more relaxed and friendly than the standard-issue police officer one might meet on the street. Boats bounce by, with someone in them usually giving a casual, howdy-officer wave as we pass. The sides of the lake are riddled with massive shorefront houses, and there’s even a gated-community island. Foster points to the mini-mansion owned by tennis superstar Andy Roddick. Another looks like a small-scale version of the Great Gatsby’s house, painted a horrendous shade of pink.
Then we pull into Bee Cave, one of Lake Austin’s two coves.
“As you can see, this is party central,” says Foster. “They had like a five-beer-bong thing that they would fill up and hang from the wakeboard tower last year.”
The watery cul de sac is packed with boats—mostly rows of mid-sizers with space in between, like a parking lot with partiers in every direction. Music—lots of rap—blasts from nearly every other vessel. “Last year, ‘Pop That Pussy’ was the popular track,” says Foster. “It’s still too early to know what what the hits will be this year.”
Everyone is laughing and smiling. Nearly everyone is drinking. And there’s nothing wrong, nor illegal, about that—unless you’re driving a boat. In Texas, charges and penalties for a BWI (.08 BAC and above) are the same as a DWI: suspension of (automobile) driver’s license, fines and possible jail time.
As with DWI laws, every state does things a little differently. And BWIs are usually not the biggest concern for law enforcement. But as Chris Moore, training director at the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) notes, states have begun to crack down. “It’s slow progress but there is progress being made,” he says. “A lot of times, it kind of takes a horrific accident to get things moving in an individual state… and we see that happening a lot. But there aren’t any states moving to lessen penalties.”
Moore cites Georgia, which revised its BWI penalties after two deaths last year. According to the Newnan Times-Herald, Georgia had been one of just eight states to have a have a higher BAC limit (.10) for boat captains than car drivers (the standard .08). Other states that have recently enacted increased BWI penalties include New York and North Carolina.
Still, even if a boater is over the limit, how does a squad like APD’s Lake Patrol unit find them? It’s not like you can tell a person is swerving, since there are no painted lanes to cross over.
“There’s not a whole lot of enforcement out here,” says Foster. “A lot of it is just safety.” Safety, in this case, means basic guidelines from the Texas Water Safety Act, which follows standards set by the Coast Guard. Foster says they make a lot of arrests after sundown, when people clearly don’t have all the required lighting.
Other than that, though—and unlike officers patrolling streets and highways, who (with the exception of checkpoints) need probable cause to pull someone over—“We don’t have to have a reason to stop anybody,” says Foster. Given that the Lake Patrol unit’s mission is to ensure that the Water Safety Act is being followed, they can stop anyone to make sure that’s the case.
“OK, get ready to take notes right here,” says O’Donnell with a smile, as we ease into Lake Austin’s other party cove, Bull Creek. On one boat, we see two women go tandem on a double-spouted beer bong. Another boat has a stripper pole.