Here’s our guide to staying safe and legal with (and without) a drink in hand on California waters.

Boating is one of the most fun things you can do in the Golden State, whether you’re fishing with friends, feeling the salt spray on your face from a jetski or relaxing in the sunlight. When it comes to boating, drinking often comes up too: after all, how many commercials, TV shows and songs do we know of that glamorize alcohol on a boat? A lot.

But, you’ve probably thought before that, just like with driving, there are probably some rules around drinking and boating in California — and there are. Since alcohol can quickly affect everything from judgement to operating ability, there are laws in place to keep every California boater, swimmer and passerby safe on the water. Here’s everything you need to know when it comes to alcohol, drugs and boating in California.

Can I drink on a boat in California?

In California, you may not operate any vessel under the influence of alcohol or drugs — which includes everything from a fishing boat to a jetski. In California, being under the influence of alcohol means that you have a blood alcohol content level (BAC) of .08% or higher. This also goes for driving a car in the Golden State — and is pretty consistent across the country. If you’re operating a commercial vessel in California, you may face penalties at a BAC of .04% or greater.

While the laws are a little different on a vessel — for instance, there aren’t any open container laws on a boat — the intoxication levels and rules are the same. If you’re found operating a vessel while intoxicated in California, you may face steep fines and jail time, as well as lose your boating license and/or your driver’s license. As a boat driver or passenger, you can enjoy alcohol responsibly… but operators may not reach any level of intoxication.

What are the penalties/fines for drinking and boating in California?

In California, a boater found operating a vessel under the influence can be convicted of a Boating Under the Influence — or BUI — if their BAC is greater than .08%. Those with a BAC of greater than .04% may also be given a BUI if they are operating a commercial vessel. 

In California, a BUI is counted the same as a DUI, or Driving Under the Influence, meaning that you may also lose driving privileges for automobiles and boats. In California, the potential BUI fines are as follows:

  • BUI first offense: Misdemeanor charges, up to $1,000 fine, up to six months in jail
  • BUI subsequent offense: Misdemeanor charges, up to one year in jail, up to $1,000 fine

In California, the penalties may substantially increase with bodily injury.

When can I drink on a boat in California?

You may drink responsibly on boats in California, though boat operators may not become intoxicated.

The effects of alcohol

Drinking while boating can turn poorly quickly… no matter what state you might be in. Heat, reflection, water and sunlight can majorly magnify alcoholic effects, which means that drinking alcohol can quickly affect everything from your judgment to your balance. We always recommend drinking very little, if at all, while boating, since drinking causes:

  • Less concentration, worse judgment and slower processing times
  • Slower reaction and response
  • Reduced motor skills, in and out of the water
  • Accelerated hypothermia
  • A lack of ability to distinguish between good and bad decisions

Alcohol-related boating instances in California

While drinking alcohol might seem fun, it has been a huge cause of boating accidents in the state of California. According to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, almost 25% of fatal boating accidents involve alcohol in some way: whether on part of the operator or a passenger. In fact, BUI’s are the leading factor in fatal recreational watercraft accidents.

What about being under the influence of drugs on California waters? 

In California, it is illegal to operate any vessel under the influence of drugs. Just like with alcohol, drugs are a firsthand contributor to slower reaction times and increased accidents. 

What else do I need to know about drinking, drugs and boating in California?

At BOATsmart!, we think there’s nothing quite as fun as a day out on the boat… but, only when it’s safe. When drugs and alcohol come into the boating picture, boating becomes more dangerous for everyone involved. In California, all boaters under the age of 35 are already required to hold a California Boater Card and take a boating safety course. By 2025, each and every California boater will need the same — which is the first step in creating a safer boating environment for everyone.

With BOATsmart!’s boating safety course, boaters in California will learn what they need to know about boating safely and having fun at the same time. Our curriculum is engaging, narrated and animated for maximum learning and enjoyment, which is why it’s the top choice for California boaters.