The 29-foot boat rocks hard back and forth as two people chat about the man's new boat nearby, his day on the water. It's a beautiful afternoon on Lake of the Ozarks, and for this lake, traffic is moderately busy.
The 29-foot boat rocks hard back and forth as two people chat about the man’s new boat nearby, his day on the water. It’s a beautiful afternoon on Lake of the Ozarks, and for this lake, traffic is moderately busy. The man has had some beers, admitting to a couple. He’s nervous though as he answers some questions and worries whether the small boat he’s now riding in might flip from the churning wakes of passing vessels.
This isn’t a social visit. We’re in a Missouri State Highway Patrol patrol boat, and the man is the midst of failing a field sobriety test during a BWI checkpoint on the lake July 21, the day of one of the largest waterfront events of the season.
Overall, the sobriety checkpoint is simple in theory; it’s the logistics that are complicated.
A winding line of MSHP Donzis stretch across the channel near the 11 mile marker. They’re hard to count bobbing around in the water amidst a channel bustling with boats. I’m told there are 11 patrol vessels in flux along the line as marine troopers issue warnings and citations, make arrests or just chat for a few moments, as deemed necessary.
The water is busy around the initial early evening hours that I’m there, which is why they held it in the 4 to 8 p.m. time range. With boats streaming through the area, the goal, says the trooper, is to stop every next boat. Most of the vessels are paused on their journey for just a few moments as sunglasses come off faces with a few-second exchange with the captain whether there’s been any drinking and a life jacket check.
Fine nuances of the senses appear to be key, but the trooper makes them quickly from observance of the eyes and scent to the state of the drivers’ speech. It takes seconds and on their way go most of the boaters.
The vast majority of the three hours or so I spend on the checkpoint is not actually in the trooper making stops but in handling the two BWI arrests from initiation to disposition— we end up taking or guiding both boats, with help from other troopers, to docks nearby.
The driver described above is of one of just a few boats this particular trooper stops while I’m on board for a ride-along to observe the sobriety checkpoint. He ultimately becomes one of two captains that I watch take and apparently fail the field sobriety test, being arrested for boating while intoxicated.
Let me just say, there may be no more awkward social situation than being arrested. And it’s likely not a position that the average middle to upper class boater would likely ever find themselves in otherwise.
Because of what is naturally a tense situation, just like on land, there can be a strong instinct to run, I’m told by another trooper, but with additional dangers due to the water. Regardless of the who or what, it is acknowledged that everyone involved in the stop is the trooper’s responsibility.
It’s a heavy weight that the trooper making the stop, as well as others I follow later during a night patrol, seemingly carry lightly, personable and professional whatever they may actually be thinking as they basically take command of both vessels.
Casual conversation continues while she directs the logistics of custody. From the time she pulls the Donzi up to the other far larger boat to the end as we reach the dock, the trooper is in undoubtedly in control, giving precise instructions from beginning to end in order to take care of and maintain control over not just the driver but his passengers and vessel.
When she sees and hears enough, the trooper has the captain put on a life jacket and transfer to the Donzi.
Both drivers admit to some alcohol consumption, though perhaps not as much as what they’ve really had. In both cases, none of their passengers know how to drive the boat in their place, leaving it up to us or a tow company to deal with getting the boat and its passengers back to shore.
The low-walled vessel continuously rocks through each detainment as the state marine trooper sweeps her pen back and forth in front of each man, watching his eyes closely.
The pen test is actually not about how well you can follow the pen, but checks for involuntary jerking of the eye that can be caused by intoxication by depressants such as alcohol. Specific commands to say certain sections of the alphabet, to count backwards, don’t go too well.
I think I am more embarrassed and uncomfortable for them than they are. Or maybe they’re just quietly thinking of what lies ahead.
Whatever the trooper sees moves her on to pull out a portable breathalyzer. She’s not surprised by their blood alcohol levels, both over the legal limit though not more than double. An experienced trooper, she comments casually during the first arrest that the 0.11 BAC matches up with six points she has seen in his eyes.
The trooper encourages a relaxed atmosphere, like we’re all just old friends hanging out. Not even close, but we are all human. And that is the key. The trooper’s ease seems to help our drivers relax, relatively speaking. There’s talk of the weather, their boats and the tragedy of the Duck boat drowning in Branson amidst sorting out how to get everybody back to land and what to do next.
To be fair, both drivers handle their stop, detainment and subsequent arrest well, obviously nervous but cooperative. An initial BWI after all is a misdemeanor, though hopefully still a significant lesson.
The checkpoint nets eight BWI arrests, and 53 warnings are issued, representing a small proportion of the 228 boats contacted and a drop in the bucket of course to the boats out on the lake for the day, but still significant if you allow yourself to stop and think about the slim margin between what is and would could have been, occasionally merely fate but more often about our own choices.
There is an all-too fine of a line between an epic day of fun on Lake of the Ozarks and a waking nightmare. The lake can be, and is for the majority, sunny Americana at its best. Considering the thousands of boaters on any given summer weekend, the density of vessels on the waterway, there really are relatively few fatal and injury incidents. But the number of lives a single crash can impact should also be enough to give anyone pause.
A day on the water is full of seemingly small decisions — that one more, one more beer, throwing the life jackets on board, checking the navigation lights. But these casual moments, for not just the driver but also passengers, can make or break you out on the water.
Alcohol-involved boating crashes are one of the most preventable types of accidents and yet they still occur steadily every year. In Missouri in 2016, impairment was a probable contributing cause in three fatal, nine injury and 12 property damage boat crashes. Lake of the Ozarks saw three of 11 total fatal boat crashes in the state with four people killed.
With 45 of 73 injury accidents in Missouri, Lake of the Ozarks saw 54 people injured in total boat crashes. Overall, the biggest contributors in fatal and injury boat crashes in Missouri were excessive speed, failing to keep proper lookout and inattention, inexperience and water conditions.
Other points of interest
•Later in the checkpoint, our boat gives another patrol vessel more life jackets as they’d already handed out all of theirs on board to a couple of civilian boats discovered without. In conjunction with a grant through the Camden County Health Department, the troopers hand out life jackets as needed. And during this particular checkpoint, four citations are issued for not having PDFs on board and another citation for a child under the age of seven not wearing a life jacket as required by state law. The trooper I was with did not check any vessels without life jackets, but some had life jackets still in the shrink wrap they were purchased in.
•Everyone on board needs to be able to access life jackets quickly no matter how good of a swimmer they are or think think they are. If a collision does occur, the boat capsizes or you’re thrown out of the vessel and hit your head, your skills will not matter in the slightest. In the next 60 seconds or so, your chance of surviving is pretty much reliant on your previous choice to wear one.
•Out on patrol at night, there are far fewer boats. Prime time these days is early evening. But of those few vessels, we come across one right after the other with problems with navigation lights. People would never think about going out in their car at night if their headlights weren’t working. In just an hour or so, we stopped two or three for lighting issues, escorting them to nearby docks. The rules for navigational lighting at night are simple. A red sidelight to mark port (left side), green to mark starboard (right) and a white all-around or sternlight depending on the size of your vessel. The lights must all be working — and be on! — when away from the dock between official sunset and sunrise. Know it. Do it.