Drinking, boating, dying

Thursday, August 17, 2006
Several signs alert visitors to the alcohol ban along the lake at Trail of Tears State Park in Cape Girardeau County. (Diane L. Wilson)

It's a problem officers patrolling Missouri's public waterways don't believe will ever go away.

During the first weekend of August, a St. Charles, Mo., woman was killed when two boats collided at Lake of the Ozarks. Investigators said drunken boating was the cause of the accident.

In July, Caleb M. Lumos, 23, of Cape Girardeau drowned in Lake of Egypt in Illinois after a day of partying with friends. Johnson County Coroner John McCuan confirmed the drowning was alcohol-related.

Another alcohol-related drowning was the cause of death for a Columbia, Mo., man last month. The 32-year-old man and a couple of friends were in a rowboat in a Callaway County lake at about 2 a.m. The victim jumped into the water, went under and never came up.

Last year, alcohol was involved in more than 55 percent of the 24 boating fatalities in Missouri's lakes and rivers. The Missouri State Water Patrol reports half of the 10 boating fatalities that occurred this year were alcohol-related. Within the last 10 years, 42 percent of the 141 reported drowning victims had consumed alcohol prior to drowning.

Alcohol-related boating accidents and deaths occur too frequently, said Sgt. Ralph Bledsoe of the Missouri State Water Patrol. "When people get around alcohol, they become very irresponsible. Unless people quit drinking, you're not going to put a dent in these accidents," he said.

To understand alcohol-related accidents and deaths in rivers and lakes, Bledsoe said, the public must understand the laws governing the use of alcohol on public waterways.

In Missouri, it is not illegal to drink alcohol while operating a motorized boat. However, the driver of the boat may not be intoxicated or have a 1.0 blood alcohol content level.

"Just seeing a beer in the hand of an operator does not automatically constitute probable cause to stop them. You can be in a canoe and be passed-out drunk and still not have violated a state law dealing with alcohol," Bledsoe said.

According to information compiled by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, Missouri recently was ranked the No. 1 state in arrests for boating while intoxicated. In 2005, the water patrol made 475 such arrests, with 332 of them made at Lake of the Ozarks.

Missouri Water Patrol Capt. Hans Huenik believes the patrol makes a more proactive effort to combat drunken boating than other states.

"The Missouri Water Patrol agency is dedicated to boating safety. In other states, conservation agencies and departments of natural resources are patrolling the waterways, and it's not their primary job to control them," he said.

The large number of arrests for boating while intoxicated is one reason Bari Neff of Cape Girardeau won't take weekend boating excursions with her family to Lake of the Ozarks. "It's very dangerous there, and people are partying nonstop," she said.

Neff, her husband, Bob, and their three children visit Kentucky Lake almost every weekend during the summer. "Kentucky Lake is more for families. We tend to stay away from the party areas. We're not the hard-core partiers," she said.

To see the number of boating accidents, fatalities and drownings decrease in the state, Bledsoe said alcohol would need to be banned from public waterways -- something he doesn't see happening.

Missouri's rivers and lakes, particularly Lake of the Ozarks in the eastern part of the state and the Current River at Van Buren, Mo., are huge tourist attractions.

"To say you could never have alcohol at Lake of the Ozarks would cause a huge uproar. You couldn't get any legislator to touch that issue," Bledsoe said.

Cape Girardeau resident Kyle Whitmore, 26, visits the Current River several times during the summer. The river is a popular place for floating and drinking alcohol with friends, Whitmore said.

Minors in possession of alcohol and drug use are the main problems the water patrol faces on Missouri's rivers, Bledsoe said. Last year 1,208 drug arrests and 445 underage drinking arrests were made.

"It's a good time, but there are people who can get a little out of control," Whitmore said of the Current River. "You just have to drink responsibly."

That's the message Hershel Price, superintendent of Trail of Tears State Park in Cape Girardeau, wants park visitors to hear. While it's legal for visitors to bring alcohol into Trail of Tears, alcohol was banned from the park's Lake Boutin more than 30 years ago.

"People can drink if they want to come have a picnic. We have no problems with that. The key is to drink responsibly," he said.

The alcohol ban at the lake doesn't stop people from drinking at the popular swimming hole during summer months. "We have to go after folks who want to bring their alcohol out here pretty regularly. We don't tolerate it," Price said.

During his 16 years as superintendent, Price said four people have drowned in Lake Boutin. Only one drowning about 10 years ago was alcohol-related, he said.

Bledsoe hopes legislators will someday make it illegal to operate a boat while drinking alcohol. "When they get out there on the water and they are intoxicated, it can be a formula for disaster," he said.

jfreeze@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 246

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