With our (usually) splendid weather and more than 8,000 square miles of lakes and rivers – not to mention the Pacific Ocean – boating is one of California’s most popular recreations. But as you enjoy the water this summer – or any time of year – you must understand the law and make safety the top priority.

Across the United States in 2016, the Coast Guard reports that 4,463 boating accidents involved 701 fatalities, 2,903 serious injuries, and approximately $49 million dollars of property damage. The Coast Guard also reports that alcohol is the leading factor in fatal boating accidents.

Boating under the influence – “BUI” – is against the law in the state of California, just like driving under the influence. The law in California prohibits anyone from operating a “vessel” while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and virtually all watercraft – motorboats, sailboats, even jet skis “or a similar device” – are defined as vessels by the California Harbors and Navigation Code.


No one may operate a vessel in California waters “while under the influence” of alcohol or drugs, regardless of the “level” of the operator’s intoxication, and no one may operate a vessel with a blood alcohol content (BAC) level at or above 0.08 percent (or 0.04 percent for commercial boat operators).

Here is the relevant text from Section 655 of the California Harbors and Navigation Code:

(b) No person shall operate any vessel or manipulate water skis, an aquaplane, or a similar device while under the influence of an alcoholic beverage, any drug, or the combined influence of an alcoholic beverage and any drug. (c) No person shall operate any recreational vessel or manipulate any water skis, aquaplane, or similar device if the person has an alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent or more in his or her blood. (d) No person shall operate any vessel other than a recreational vessel if the person has an alcohol concentration of 0.04 percent or more in his or her blood.


The U.S. Coast Guard and local law enforcement agencies throughout southern California routinely patrol the region’s waters to look for boaters who are under the influence and other threats to public safety. Patrols are increased on weekends and holidays.

The Coast Guard also provides the following basic safety suggestions to everyone who owns or operates any boat or watercraft:

  • Never drink alcohol before you operate a boat or any watercraft.
  • Always carry a fire extinguisher, flares, and a marine-band radio.
  • Always carry and use life jackets.
  • Always check a weather forecast before boating.

In California, the penalties for a BUI conviction are comparable to the penalties for a DUI conviction. The precise penalties for a conviction will depend on the details of the charge and the defendant’s criminal record. Every boater convicted of boating under the influence in California must pass a boating safety course approved by California’s Department of Boating and Waterways.

If it’s a first offense and no one was injured, a boating under the influence charge is a misdemeanor punishable upon conviction with probation and up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. A judge may also order a convicted BUI offender to attend DUI school. An offender who is convicted a second time within seven years of boating or driving under the influence could be sentenced to as much as a year in jail.


However, anyone who is charged with boating under the influence with injuries will face harsher penalties if convicted. BUI with injuries is a charge known in California as a “wobbler,” which means that the charge can be filed as either a felony or as a misdemeanor, depending on the details of the offense and the prosecutor’s discretion. A felony conviction for boating under the influence with injuries can be punished by up to three years in a California state prison.

If an offender is sentenced to probation after a conviction for boating under the influence with injuries – as either a misdemeanor charge or as a felony charge – and the offender also has a prior conviction for a “simple” BUI charge at any time in the previous seven years, the offender must serve a minimum of five days in a county jail and pay a fine of at least $250 as a condition of probation. Clearly, boating under the influence is something that everyone wants to avoid.

Additionally, what many people may not realize is that operating a boat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs can be even more dangerous than driving a car or a truck while under the influence. In collisions, boats sometimes capsize, and people sometimes fall overboard. Boats are substantially more difficult to brake and to steer than motor vehicles are, and most people have far more experience driving than boating.

Boat operators should understand that when boating under the influence injures others, the criminal charges may only be part of the story. The injured victims of negligent boaters – and negligent boaters include intoxicated boaters – can sue those boaters in California’s civil courts for personal injuries and for all related damages – such as lost wages and loss of earning capacity.

You genuinely must not drink before operating a boat, but if you are charged with BUI in southern California, get legal help at once. An experienced Orange County DUI lawyer can review the facts and the evidence, explain your rights and options, and advocate effectively for justice on your behalf. In many cases, a reduction of charges or some other type of plea bargain can be arranged.

If you are innocent, however, you should fight the charge with help from an aggressive, experienced California DUI attorney. On the other hand, if you are guilty as charged and the evidence against you is overwhelmingly conclusive, you will need an experienced DUI attorney who routinely negotiates on behalf of clients for reduced or alternative sentencing. Do not even think about facing a BUI or DUI charge without having an experienced Orange County DUI lawyer at your side. Your freedom and your future are far too important.