The annual Seafair on Lake Washington is the biggest boating event in Washington and is known for its numerous attractions, but not the deaths that occur on the water each year.
To local police, Seafair is known as the biggest boat safety emphasis in the state as the Mercer Island Police marine patrol works with several other agencies to prevent the multiple deaths and injuries that plagued the event for decades. This year is the second year in a row that saw zero deaths during Seafair, with only one serious injury.
“Prior to 16 years ago, there were always numerous serious injuries and quite often one to up to three deaths every Seafair weekend,” said Sgt. Brian Noel, supervisor of MIPD’s marine patrol. “Sixteen years ago we decided to be proactive on how to deal with it and attack the root of the issue, which is drunk boating.”
The Seafair boating under the influence (BUI) emphasis began in 2002 and is a partnership among the MIPD marine patrol, Washington State Patrol, Department of Fish and Wildlife, Seattle Police Department, King County Sheriff’s Office, Coast Guard and Washington State Parks Department.
When the emphasis began, authorities would make 175 BUI arrests during the three-day event. Authorities made 58 arrests this year.
BUI is a similar offense to driving under the influence (DUI), in that the legal limit is a 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content. However, BUIs are more difficult to detect, according to Noel, because while officers come into close proximity of drunk drivers, they’re further away from a drunk boater. Additionally, BUIs can be just as dangerous as water magnifies the effects of alcohol, Noel said, and some boaters will drink as much as they will on land, thinking it’ll affect them in the same way.
“If you’re intoxicated walking on dry land, you are uncoordinated, [but] the land is pretty static,” Noel said. “On the water, it’s different. Not only is the person consuming the alcohol uncoordinated, but they’re on a dynamic moving fluid which kind of magnifies the problems.”
This year showed that the improved safety is consistent as Noel added that 2018 was a busier year than last year, but patrols still saw less of a “frat party environment,” and more families out for a nice day of boating.
“Water, as fun as it can be, is hazardous. The only things that keep you alive on the water is either your skill or technology,” Noel said. “Either you have a floating platform like a boat or a life vest keeping you afloat, or it’s your skill just being able to know how to swim. So without skill and or technology, that water will take you.”
Noel received the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators Boating Law Officer of the Year for Washington state this year during the patrol as he oversaw the safety emphasis as the numbers dropped.
“It is a great honor and we are very thankful to Hoyle Hodges with Washington State Parks for presenting the award and for U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Fagan, Pacific Commander, for her participation. Congratulations Sergeant Noel,” the MIPD Facebook page states.
Noel credits his predecessors for creating the safety emphasis and adding their own ideas before passing the program on to him.
“I’m just the latest supervisor in the marine unit,” he said. “The people in the position before me (were the ones) who initially developed this program. I’m just the latest of a string of people that have had a positive influence on this emphasis seeing the numbers go from 175 in three days to 58…I see it as a huge success for the program.”
Seafair attracts more than 10,000 boaters according to event organizers. While this year was slightly busier than 2017, according to Noel, patrols anticipated and mostly had positive encounters with many boaters.
“There’s a bigger understanding that we’re actually there to help, we’re not being the fun police, we’re not trying to hunt for people, but we’re trying to ensure that the environment out there, which can be hazardous, is safe for everybody,” Noel said. “I have a lot more people waving at me with all five fingers.”