Drinking and Boating Laws in Canada

November 28, 2023

Just like drunk driving, boating under the influence is a serious offense under Canadian law. Not only is it illegal, drinking while driving a boat makes you a danger to yourself and others. In fact, more than half of all boating accidents in Canada are linked to the consumption of alcohol.

While the legal consequences may vary from province to province, operating a pleasure craft while under the influence of alcohol is against the law and dangerous everywhere in Canada. Don’t wait to have an accident, get fined or have your licence taken away! Keep reading to find out what you can and can’t do when it comes to taking a ‘booze cruise’. 

Boating under the influence: The Criminal Code

It is illegal to drink and drive any vehicle in Canada. A boat is a vehicle, just like a car.

According to section 320.14 (1) of the Criminal Code of Canada:

Everyone commits an offence who (. . . ) operates a conveyance while the person’s ability to operate it is impaired to any degree by alcohol or a drug or by a combination of alcohol and a drug.

According to the Criminal Code, you are ‘impaired’ if your Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) level is 80mg or higher, as determined by a breathalyzer or blood test. It does not matter whether you have a high tolerance for alcohol, the law will not vary.

After cannabis was legalized in 2018, federal laws were revised. Now, impaired boating includes operating a vessel while having a higher than acceptable blood concentration level of THC and cocaine, in addition to or in combination with alcohol.

Punishment for BUI

The Criminal Code states that any person convicted of BUI for the first time will be charged up to $1000. Keep in mind that this is only one part of the punishment. Provincial laws include further consequences, such as at least two weeks of prison time, the suspension of your driver’s license for a year, the obligation to take a costly boating course and the doubling or even tripling of your insurance costs.

Depending on your behavior, you could also face charges for public intoxication  or for possessing an open container of alcohol. 

Why is it dangerous to drink and drive a boat? 

You’re out on the water, there are no visible obstacles, it’s a calm day – why is it illegal to drink and drive a boat?

The fact is, it is easier to become impaired while drinking on a boat than while operating a motor vehicle. The combination of hot sun, noise, wind, the vibration of the motor and the movement of the boat together quadruple the effects of alcohol on boaters, leading to boater fatigue. And once you begin to suffer related effects of boater fatigue, you are more likely to suffer from or cause harm.

According to the Canadian Red Cross, approximately 525 Canadians die every year in boating-related accidents, and more than half of these are related to alcohol. Remember, you are legally responsible for the safety of everyone on board your boat. This means equipping your boat with adequate safety equipment, including fire extinguishers (remember, alcohol is flammable!), and following boating laws. Be prepared and stay sober!

The risks of boating under the influence

Here are a few of the effects of drinking while operating a boat:

  • Slower response times: Your reflexes are slowed by the effects of alcohol. This makes it more difficult to avoid collisions and make swift maneuvers to avoid obstacles. It also makes you more likely to lose your balance and fall overboard. 
  • Poor judgement: When impaired, you become less able to process information from marine charts, radio communications and signals from boat radar reflectors to make sensible choices. 
  • Reduced vision: Alcohol affects your peripheral vision, depth perception and ability to distinguish colours. This affects your ability to identify vital navigation and safety signals, including navigation lights or distress signals.
  • Inner ear malfunctions: If you fall overboard while under the influence, you may be unable to tell which way is up, making it impossible to find the surface of the water, which could lead you to drown even in calm water. 
  • Slowed swallowing and breathing reflexes: With malfunctioning body functions, you are more likely to drown if you fall overboard, especially if you are not wearing a life jacket.
  • Dehydration: Through exposure to sun and wind, you can quickly become dehydrated, which makes you more susceptible to the effects of alcohol. Dehydrated people can accumulate a higher blood alcohol concentration in less time, leading to stomach cramps and difficulty swimming.  
  • Hypothermia: Alcohol lowers the body’s resistance to cold, leading to greater risk of hypothermia when boating in cold conditions or if you fall overboard. Canada’s waters are suitable for swimming at certain times of the year, however there is significant variation in these temperatures and plunging into cold water from the warm surface of a boat can be a shock.

Legal drinking and boating

While it is illegal to boat under the influence, you are allowed to have a drink on your boat if your boat has:

  • permanent cooking facilities
  • permanent sleeping facilities
  • a permanent toilet

Not all types of boats will meet these requirements. Even if they do, the boat must be anchored alongside a dock while you drink. Note that provinces and territories have their own laws about drinking on a boat, which may vary. 

Provincial drinking and boating laws

You should always contact provincial law enforcement authorities for more information before taking to the water with alcohol on board. You can also contact the RCMP to obtain province-specific information. Keep in mind that laws do change, so stay informed. 

Get your official boating license at Canada’s National Boating Safety School! 

Enjoying a drink onboard is possible, but only if you follow the rules. Otherwise, the consequences can be dire.

Boating in Canada involves being responsible. Always keep your proof of competency and boat compliance notice on board, and make sure you understand the Canadian boating laws

Take our safe boating course online today and get your Canadian boating license in as little as one day.

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