Two years ago, my father spent three months house ridden and in need of a serious operation on his leg.
The cause? He fell off a boat.
I remember him calling to say he was on his way to the hospital, but not to worry. So I didn’t. Not until about a month later, when I saw how depressed he was just sitting on the couch, hating that he couldn’t work, let alone walk.
Now, spoiler alert: Yes, my dad was drunk when he fell. He was on a boat with other adults who were drinking, in theory increasing his chance of falling. He’s since recovered, but I’m never comfortable when he gets on a boat or rides a jet ski.
In the years prior to and after his accident, I heard several stories about people who’d been seriously injured or died in boating accidents, usually as a result of drunkenness. My friend’s father tragically died that way, while in at the helm of a boat.
My dad was lucky. Miami-Dade County was ranked second in the nation, with 67 total boating accidents, by the 2016 Florida Fish Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Reportable Boating Accidents report. That year, seven people died, 37 were injured and approximately $438,000 of property damage was caused.
A possible cause, aside from residents being so close to the water, is several popular waterfront bars and restaurants where boaters can dock, drink and return to the water without a second look.
One bar, The Wharf Miami, located on the Miami River, spans 30,000 square feet and includes food trucks, patio and riverside seating areas and three bars. The bar’s dockmaster, Jordan Garcia, said that though he can’t attest to whether the social boating industry has grown in recent years, he believes businesses like the one he works for created a niche for social boaters.
“It’s kind of a classier, safer version of the multiple boat parties we’ve all been to offshore,” he said.
Garcia said the bar, which is open only on weekends, was created in response to the Miami food and drink industry, and that business is booming because of it.
Boats big and small pull up to the bar’s 250-foot dock to enjoy cocktails, VIP bottle service, music and food.
Liza Santana, the bar’s publicist, said they take the safety of their attendees very seriously.
“Although the venue is quite large, and it would be impossible to monitor everyone’s consumption, we do have officers constantly on duty to ensure no one gets violent or inappropriate,” she said.
Santana said many boats that come to the bar have captains. She cited only one incident, in which a 40-foot boat crashed into another 22-foot boat as a result of intoxication.
“The boats were still parked when the incident occurred,” she said. “The driver refused to let his captain drive.”
Most accidents The Wharf sees, she said, are just patrons falling into the water or trying to jump on or off a boat from the dock.
“In cases like those, we have two dockmasters who are medically trained, as well as safety rings, a hook, hypothermia blankets and first aid kits,” she said.
Other waterfront bars and restaurants such as Seaspice Miami, Kiki on the River, and American Social Brickell declined to comment on this story.Santana said the bar does not allow children onto the premises after sundown and works closely with the FWC, Miami-Dade Marine Patrol and the Coast Guard in the event that something does happen on the water.
Alcohol consumption factors into a third of all recreational boating fatalities, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Unlike alcohol-related driving offenses, drivers found guilty of a BUI offense (Boating Under the Influence) are not subject to confiscation or suspension of their boating license. They receive a hefty fine or a minimum jail sentence in severe cases.
Florida law states that a BUI conviction does not impact an offender’s driving privileges and that even minors as young as 14 can operate a vessel without adult supervision.
Traci Alvarez, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Coast Guard, said the reason for the lack of BUI license revocation is because there is no license requirement for recreational boating.
“I feel inexperience is the No. 1 reason for boating accidents,” she said. “This includes people not respecting or thinking of the drinking and boating laws the same way they do when it comes to drinking and driving.”
Drinking while boating has always been a problem, she said.
“Some people think boating is a way to party, but they fail to realize the waterways are dangerous and need to be respected,” she said. “Waterfront bars and restaurants should think just like any other bar or restaurant where bartenders are responsible for how much their customers consume.”
To prevent accidents from occurring, Alvarez recommends boaters of all ages hire designated captains for trips where they know they may consume alcohol.
“It is that simple,” she said. “Just like drinking and driving, you are only increasing you risks for a potentially fatal encounter on the water by drinking and boating.”
She also stressed one more invaluable tool while out on the water: safety equipment. Cell phone service is not dependable while on the water, so it’s vital to take the necessary precautions.
“The best thing to do is have a radio and proper safety equipment onboard,” she said. ”You can call into the Coast Guard via radio 24/7, we are always listening for emergencies.”