By MERAB-MICHAL FAVORITE and TOM CHANG
Law enforcement officers all seem to have a horrific story that has affected them personally.
“From my perspective, all of our safety laws are written in blood,” said Maj. John Fetterman, spokesman for Operation Dry Water, a nationwide education and enforcement initiative. “Those types of emotional accidents prompt governmental mandates.”
Fetterman was working as a deputy chief of marine patrol in Maine when he investigated the death of a young couple out on their pontoon boat one night. They had turned off their anchor lights so they could gaze at the stars when a drunk driver in a cigarette boat hit them at a high speed, splitting the boat in two and killing them.
“It’s those types of tragedies that make us stop and say, ‘Wait, this is wrong,’” he said.
The incident stayed in Fetterman’s mind as he ascended up the ranks. As the president of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, he was thinking of the stargazers when he conceived a drinking and boating awareness initiative that affects agencies and jurisdictions across the nation.
Operation Dry Water launched in 2009 and runs annually from June 28 to June 30, the weekend before July 4. America’s birthday is also the peak of the number of boating accidents, injuries and fatalities in every state in the U.S., according to Fetterman.
Charlotte County and Sarasota County sheriffs’ office marine units and regional Florida Fish and Wildlife deputies will be participating in the nationally coordinated effort aimed at reducing those numbers by focusing on drivers who are boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs in local waters.
During the operation, officers will be out in force looking for boaters whose blood alcohol content exceeds the legal limit of 0.08. This weekend will include increased patrols, Breathalyzer tests, as well as boater education. Impaired boaters can expect to be arrested or face other serious penalties, including fines and loss of boating or even driving privileges, according to the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office.
“We are dedicated to keeping boaters safe on our waters,” Sheriff Bill Prummell said in a release.“You will see our deputies out on the water looking for boaters who are operating a vessel under the influence.”
Local boating businesses are happy to see the issue enforced.
Charity Stipp, who owns Allure Boat Rentals in Manasota Key with her husband, Michael, said as a parent it makes her and her customers feel better to see increased patrol activity.
Capt. Bart Marx, who owns Alpha and Omega Charters in Port Charlotte, said the number of drunk drivers sometimes deters him from going boating, especially on crowded holiday weekends.
“I’m usually one of the last boats out there,” he said. “I let most of the people clear the area, then I go. You just have to be alert on the water as you would be on the highway.”
David Stefanini of the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office Marine Unit said tracking BUIs on the water is more challenging than on the roadways.
“You’re dealing with the elements — waves, boat traffic, tides and other environmental activity — whereas roadways are normally straight,” Stefanini said.
Fetterman said his team has come up with several field sobriety tests that can be administered while the person at the helm is still seated.
“We know what to look for, and when those tests are administered there is a 90 percent probability that the person is over the legal limit,” he said. “So if you are drunk, you will go to jail.”