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Boating While Intoxicated: How Alcohol Use Spoils "Fun In The Sun"

Fun, recreation, and alcohol

Most everyone is familiar with the offense of driving while intoxicated. But did you know that, in Iowa, there is also an offense of boating while intoxicated (BWI)? It makes sense, if you think about it. Boating is a much-loved summer tradition in this state. But with the fun and recreation comes the danger of alcohol use and its consequences.

It should be remembered that alcohol can reduce reaction time, as well as the ability to make sound and quick judgments in emergency situations. Also, alcoholic effects are multiplied by movement on the water, sun (including sun glare), and wind.

Criminal offense

Under Iowa Code, it is unlawful to operate a sailboat or motorboat while intoxicated while on the navigable waters of the state (which includes any navigable water except privately owned lakes or farm ponds); that is, under the following conditions:

  • "While under the influence of an alcoholic beverage or other drug or a combination of [the same].
  • "While having an [blood] alcohol concentration of .08 or more.
  • "While any amount of a controlled substance is present in the . . . person's blood or urine."

Operators who appear impaired may have to take tests administered by a law enforcement officer in order to determine the operator's sobriety. An operator who refuses to take a test may be subject to a penalty.

Penalties for violating this law depend upon the classification of the offense, which ranges from serious misdemeanor, to aggravated misdemeanor, to Class "D" felony, which in turn depends on whether it is a first-time violation, a second violation, or a third or subsequent violation. Each classification carries different terms of imprisonment and fine amounts, as well as other penalties.

Tougher laws?

Boating while intoxicated is a serious offense. In fact, some law enforcement officials of the Department of Natural Resources have gone on the record as saying they would like even tougher laws on alcohol use.

The Iowa Legislature partly addressed this concern in 2011 by lowering the blood alcohol limit for boat operators from .10 to 0.08, the same limit that is imposed on highway drivers. Despite this, some enforcement officials claim that it is inconsistent that operators of boats are allowed to drink while driving (which motor vehicle operators cannot do), and also that open containers can be present in boats (which is illegal in motor vehicles).

The DNR supervisor stationed in northeast Iowa was quoted by The Gazette in 2012 as saying, "Boating and alcohol do not mix. I think it would be great if boaters could not drink at all." As of 2012, though, the DNR had no plan in the works to ask for a change in statutory boating laws. Instead, a spokesperson said that educational campaigns were going to be used.

In 2011, according to the DNR, as reported in The Gazette, citations were issued to 54 boaters for boating while intoxicated, while 38 boating accidents were recorded. Of the 23 boating fatalities that were recorded for the years 2006 through 2010, only 13 involved alcohol.


If you are going to go boating in Iowa, have fun, but keep in mind, too much drinking and driving do not go together. If, however, you are cited for boating while intoxicated, remember that being accused of a crime is not the same thing as being convicted of a crime. You are still entitled to a vigorous defense, one that can be provided to you by an experienced criminal defense attorney.

  • Iowa Association of Justice
  • AAJ
  • DUI Defense Law
  • The Iowa State Bar Association

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