Watching the aerial video footage shot over the holiday weekend on Lake Minnetonka, it’s hard to tell if the boating bacchanalia below is in Minnesota or filmed at the height of Florida’s spring break.
The watercraft and inner tubes are jammed together as tight as cars caught in a traffic jam. The result: one giant floating bar where the party crowd can hop from boat to boat. If there’s a ground zero for summer revelry in the state, it’s Cruisers Cove on this popular metro lake.
Celebrating the state’s fleeting warm weather makes enduring the long winters worthwhile. But the number of calls to first responders — 75 — during the July 4th weekend at Lake Minnetonka and the death of a beloved Eden Prairie swim coach in a boating accident linked to alcohol use on another lake should give the state sobering pause.
Having fun on the water is one thing. But leaving a sense of responsibility back on shore can have serious, even deadly consequences. While overall boating safety numbers are improving, the weekend call numbers and tragic death should prompt Minnesotans to want to do better.
The sheer pleasure of being out on the water can desensitize boaters to the inherent risks, especially when alcohol is part of the mix. Driving a boat at or above a blood alcohol level of 0.08 is illegal. But lesser impairment is still troublesome, a message that gets muddied in a state that specifically exempts motorboats from its “open bottle law,” as Minnesota does.
Navigating any lake requires good judgment and strong motor skills. And the dangers of alcohol and boating are not limited to the driver. Drinking can impair swimming ability, heightening passengers’ risk if they go into the water intentionally or unintentionally. “Alcohol is the leading known contributor in fatal boat accidents,’’ according to the U.S. Coast Guard’s annual boating report.
Boating safety campaigns by the Coast Guard and local law enforcement, such as Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, have made a difference. Boating accidents nationally have declined and boating fatalities decreased 5 percent over the past decade. In 2014, 610 people died; 14 of them were in Minnesota. The number of boating-while-intoxicated arrests also is down significantly since 2012 in Hennepin County.
As the weekend events show, however, the message hasn’t reached everyone. Seventeen of the calls fielded at Lake Minnetonka involved people who were so drunk they needed medical care; eight calls involved underage drinkers. All of them are lucky their day ended in an emergency room, not the morgue, given the dangerous mix of alcohol and water.
Stanek and other authorities have pushed hard to curb dangerous boating — 35 deputies were on Lake Minnetonka over the past weekend. But greater individual and parental responsibility is needed.
Legislators also should be put on the spot. It’s unclear why Minnesota exempts boats from its open bottle law. Neither Stanek nor state officials could offer an explanation. If drinking behind the wheel of a car is prohibited, why is it OK while piloting a motorized boat? It’s a question that deserves an answer.