Can You Be Drunk in Charge of a Boat?

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As a website dedicated to narrowboats, we want to cover all issues that narrowboaters may face or questions they may ask. As the long Summer evenings are upon us (at the time of writing), I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to talk about alcohol and narrowboats. Do they mix well? Is it illegal to be drunk in charge of a boat? We hope to answer all those questions today 🙂 Then you can be fully informed after you’ve downed a couple of after lunch Pimms 🙂

What’s the deal with being drunk in charge of a boat?

A lot of people know the rules around cars and other motor vehicles, but are not always so sure about boats. I suppose because we don’t often see the police roaming around our canals, we may think it is the ‘wild west’ of the UK 🙂

You would have thought that, being a country with well-developed laws, the UK would have narrowboat drink driving laws sewn up. Think again 🙂

They do have laws related to commercial boats, namely the Merchant Shipping Act of 1995. They did think about trying to enact laws for the pleasure boat side of boating (including narrowboats), but this was never fully signed off and implemented. Section 80 of the the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003 had said that non-professionals who were found to be drunk and attempting to manoeuvre or function their boat, would be committing an offence. This would be using similar drink driving limits as on the road, but was never actually implemented. And it is a bit too vague to enforce well anyway!

This leaves us relying on ancient by-laws, which are usually made and enforced by local authorities. There are even general canal by laws from 1965 that state:

“No person shall navigate any vessel on any canal or take any part in the navigation, mooring or handling of any vessel on the canal whilst under the influence of drink to such an extent as to be incapable of having proper control of the vessel.”

In reality, these by-laws are very rarely, if ever, enforced. So are almost meaningless to the average boater.

What are the consequences of being drunk in charge of a boat?

So if the laws are so lax on drunken boating, we can all go out and have some drunk narrowboat joy riding without fear of consequences, right? Wrong! There are still ways that you can get yourself into trouble if you choose to navigate your narrowboat whilst drunk.

If You Cause an Accident

For most boaters, the reality is this. If you cause a crash on the canals, you will be breathalysed when the police come to sort it out. If they find out you are in fact over the drink drive limit, this will undoubtedly affect how they deal with you.

For example, if you are an aggressive drunk, you will get arrested for being drunk and disorderly. This is exactly what happened to a tree surgeon this year who crashed her narrowboat whilst intoxicated, as reported by the Swindon Advertiser. She must have been in a pretty bad way though, as she also tried to bite a policeman! She ended up getting five months in jail.

Insurance might not pay

Even if the police don’t find a way to arrest you for being drunk in charge of a boat, they will undoubtedly put the fact that the boat’s crew were drunk at the time of the crash in their report. We all hear about insurance companies trying to not pay up on claims (allegedly), and they may do this after reading such a police report. It might be an idea to read your particular boat insurance policy to see if this is mentioned anywhere.

What Do I Think?

What do I think about this apparent lack of drink driving laws on the canals? I think it’s a pretty severe problem in the narrowboating community. Of course, most boat owners act responsibly and cause no harm. Unfortunately, there are a small amount of others that ruin it for everyone else.

Take a read of this article over at The Sun, which talks about an incident on the Kennet and Avon canal in 2018. A pleasure boat manned by drunk stag party goers crashed and sunk a man’s narrowboat home. From what I can gather, the people responsible for said crash weren’t prosecuted or held accountable in any way. Maybe this was because the man whose boat was sunk didn’t call the police to help deal with the crash.

This situation is not going to get any better, especially as the stag boats are getting more popular on the canals. Just go look at THIS company offering up this very activity without any warnings about drink-driving issues.

It is hard, because the police don’t have the budget or manpower to enforce drink driving on the canals anyway, even if there were laws passed for leisure boaters on there. Even so, I feel this is the least the government can do. Enforce some type of official law that allows police to arrest and prosecute for drink driving a boat on inland waters. Maybe the threat of this would make people think twice before they engage in such activities.

What do you think? I have to say, this whole thing is a much bigger mess than I expected. Personally, I would never attempt to even start a boat when even mildly drunk, so have never thought that this was an issue. How wrong I was!

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