On a midnight lark after drinking on shore, Cassandra Meyers, her boyfriend, Josh Meline, and a friend, Travis Foss, unfastened a 14-foot boat and glided out on the still waters of Lake Wapogasset.
Meyers, 19, remembers little of that night on May 7, 2009, in northern Wisconsin, except that she was instantly awakened after plunging into the cold water as the boat overturned.
While Meyers was flailing in the water, her arm hooked a life jacket floating nearby.
Meline, 27, and Foss, 28, were highly intoxicated at the time and weren’t so lucky. The bodies of both men were recovered hours later by Polk County divers.
The double drowning was among the state’s 104 boating accidents in 2009 that left 16 people dead. One out of four victims was intoxicated at the time of the incident, according to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources records. So far this year, 11 people have died in state boating mishaps.
Last year, alcohol use was reported as the fifth highest contributing factor in boating accidents. Despite the lethal mixture of alcohol and boating creating havoc on Wisconsin waters, lawmakers have yet to pass new legislation to toughen OWI laws governing recreational vehicles — including boats — that would aim to deter users from the risky behavior.
“Good grief, under our current laws, you can get behind the wheel of a boat and chug a beer at the same time — and it’s perfectly legal!” said boater Buddy Wilson of Fond du Lac. “You see people out on the lakes tipping them back one after another. I’m surprised there aren’t more boating fatalities.”
Safety advocates like Roy Zellmer, the DNR’s boating law administrator, are behind legislation that would tie OWI convictions on recreational vehicles to a person’s permanent driver’s license.
“People are pretty agitated when they’re arrested for driving their recreational vehicles drunk. But when they find out the arrest doesn’t affect their driver’s record, it’s not such a big deal to them anymore,” Zellmer said.
Legislation in a bill drafted earlier this year by state Rep. Louis Molepske Jr., D-Stevens Point, would make a second offense for OWI on any recreational vehicle within five years a criminal offense.
“Right now, you could get arrested for driving your snowmobile drunk in February, ticketed again in June for drunken boating and again in October for driving your ATV while drunk and wind up just paying fines,” said Gary Eddy, DNR snowmobile/ATV safety administrator. “In fact, there’s no law to keep someone with a revoked driver’s license from jumping into a boat that’s capable of carrying one to six people and driving that vessel while intoxicated. The most they could get is a ticket, and it wouldn’t even impact their driver’s license or prior OWI offenses in their motor vehicle.”
Wisconsin has more than 626,304 registered motorized boats, the fifth highest number in the nation, according to U.S. Coast Guard records.
Trying to keep tabs on the conduct of boaters navigating the state’s 15,000 lakes, streams and rivers is a small army of conservation wardens and local deputies, including Mike Matoushek, recreational patrol officer for Dodge County. From May until after Labor Day, Matoushek spends weekends patrolling the waters of the county’s biggest lakes.
The nuances of guiding a boat through the wind and the waves can be challenging for even the most skilled boaters, Matoushek says.
“Add the effects of noise and vibration to the fatigue from the elements — it takes a lot out of you. With those additional factors out on the water, you could have just one or two beers and show the signs of being intoxicated,” Matoushek said.
Those with little experience navigating a boat are more at risk, especially if alcohol is in the equation. In Wisconsin, only those born after 1988 are required to take a boater safety course to legally operate a boat.
“A lot of people get in power boats that don’t have any instruction on how to operate them. They think it’s like a car and forget they’re handling a five-ton vehicle without any brakes and have no clue what the rules of navigation are,” said Candace Bowen of Operation Dry Water. “Add the fact that they’re impaired, and it becomes a serious issue.”
Enforcement of OWI laws on Lake Winnebago is taxing on DNR and Fond du Lac County Sheriff’s Department officials working to cover an area the size of the city of Chicago. Last year, sheriff’s deputies spent 326 hours patrolling the lower third of the lake — equivalent to the size of 35,309 football fields.
“I’m surprised there aren’t more tragedies out here, but I think boating, snowmobiling and ATV communities are more educated than 30 years ago when I started,” said Sheriff Mick Fink.
Matoushek believes his fishing boat, emblazoned with the Sheriff Department logo, is a deterrent to risky behavior out on the water.
“Everyone knows we’re out here as soon as the boat hits the water,” Matoushek said. “Since I’ve started in this position three years ago, we’re actually seen a decline in violations.”
Zellmer thinks a deterrent of stronger laws will go a long way to changing the public’s attitude toward obeying OWI boating laws and making the state’s waterways and trails safer.
“People ‘get it’ when they’re being arrested for driving drunk in their car. But when they’re out recreating on their boat or snowmobile, they’re mad at us because they’re just trying to have a good time,” Zellmer said. “People forget that we have 80 to 90 people dying each year while operating recreational vehicles in Wisconsin.”