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W.Va. DNR’s ‘Operation Dry Water’ targets drunken boaters

JOHN McCOY | Gazette photos
ABOVE: Sgt. Jerry Payne and other Natural Resources Police officers will be out in force during this weekend’s Operation Dry Water, conducting sobriety tests on boat operators and checking to see that their vessels have all the proper safety equipment.
RIGHT: Division of Natural Resources patrol boats will be a common sight during the three-day effort to discourage pleasure boaters from operating their water- craft while under the influence of alcohol.
JOHN McCOY | Gazette
Division of Natural Resources patrol boats will be out in force this weekend for Operation Dry Water, a three-day effort to discourage pleasure boaters from operating their boats while under the influence of alcohol.

This is the weekend when West Virginia’s Natural Resources Police try to dry out some of the state’s major rivers and lakes.

Not in the literal sense, of course. Instead, officers involved in Operation Dry Water will be cracking down on drunken boaters.

“You’ll see our officers out on the water looking for boaters who are operating vessels under the influence,” said Lt. Tim Coleman, boater safety coordinator for the Division of Natural Resources’ Law Enforcement Section. “We’ll have enhanced patrols on the Ohio, Kanawha, Monongahela and Little Kanawha rivers, as well as on several lakes where boating is popular.”

The idea, said Coleman, is not to write a bunch of tickets or to make a lot of arrests, but to maintain a high-profile presence that encourages boaters to stay sober or to designate “sober skippers” for their craft.

Boating under the influence is a significant problem. Coleman said that, nationwide, more than 50 percent of all boating accidents involve alcohol. West Virginia’s official percentage isn’t quite that high, but Coleman believes the state’s inefficient reporting system for boat-accident statistics prevents some accidents from being reported.

“The bottom line is that we still have way too many people who are boating under the influence,” he said.

State law permits boaters to have alcohol aboard, and it allows people on the boat to drink. Problems arise when someone who has been drinking takes the helm and attempts to pilot the boat.

“We don’t have an issue with people who go out and tie off a bunch of boats in some scenic place and drink while they enjoy their friends’ company and watch the sun go down,” Coleman said. “The problems occur when the people who have been drinking try to go home.”

Boating becomes significantly more dangerous after dark because pleasure boats don’t have headlights. Alcohol compounds the problem.

“If a boating accident occurs after 10 p.m. you can pretty much figure that alcohol was involved,” Coleman said.

Natural Resources Police dealt with just such a situation earlier this week when a pleasure boat struck a barge moored along the Kanawha River at Quincy, injuring four. Officers found beer bottles on board but weren’t able to determine if drinking caused the collision.

Operation Dry Water is an attempt, at least for a weekend, to reduce the chance that similar accidents might take place. West Virginia is one of 56 U.S. states, trusts and territories taking part in the three-day effort.

The first Operation Dry Water took place in 2009, when officials from the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators came up with the concept. “We’ve been a part of it since its inception,” Coleman said.

It appears to be having an effect. Coleman said officers usually write more tickets and make more arrests during Dry Water weekends, but he said that’s not how law enforcement officials measure success.

“We look at the number of accidents, and that is going down,” he said. “In 2012, we had a total of 36 boating accidents. Last year, we had 24.”

Fatalities, which used to routinely number more than 10 a year, have fallen, as well. Last year, five people lost their lives in boating accidents.

Coleman said officers in this weekend’s patrols will focus on areas where boaters tend to congregate. “We know from experience where these places are, such as near city levees or near floating bars, and we’ll have a strong presence there.”

Boaters with blood alcohol levels of .08 or greater will be arrested or ticketed. Coleman said officers also will check boats to make sure they have the necessary life jackets, throwable flotation devices, fire extinguishers and operable running lights.

“In the end, this is about safety,” he added. “Boating is a safe and enjoyable pastime when people stay alert and follow the rules. We’re dedicated to keeping boaters safe on our waters.”

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