For many Americans, a day out on their boat isn't the same without a bottle of wine, a six-pack or a few mixed drinks. If you're operating the vessel, however, you're asking for trouble if you imbibe. Accidents caused by boating under the influence (BUI) can be just as deadly as car crashes involving drunk drivers. Both federal and state law enforcement agencies take BUI very seriously, and the potential penalties reflect that.

State laws involving BUI vary, so it's essential to know the laws of your state and any state whose waters you'll be in. State authorities may be out on the water looking for vessels moving erratically or dangerously -- particularly on weekends and holidays when there's a lot of boating and other watercraft activity. The U.S. Coast Guard also patrols our waters. Sometimes authorities set up checkpoints, much like DUI checkpoints, where boaters must stop.

What Authority Does Law Enforcement Have Over Boaters?

Generally, if officers suspect the operator of a boat to be under the influence, they can board the vessel. Erratic behavior by the boat or the operator could be deemed "probable cause." Some states require this before authorities can board a boat, but others do not.

Authorities use breathalyzer and field sobriety tests on boat operators, just as on drivers. State laws vary regarding penalties for refusing to submit to a breathalyzer. In some states, refusal will lead to a suspension of your boating license.

Field sobriety tests for boaters are often different than those used for drivers. Authorities want to help determine whether boaters able to perform the functions needed to operate their vessel. Tests may involve things like performing a specific task or reciting a phrase.

What Are the Penalties for BUI?

Those convicted of BUI can often face the same penalties as someone who's guilty of DUI. This can involve jail time. They may also be required to pay a fine, attend boater education classes and/or undergo alcohol counseling.

The severity of the BUI-related charges and possible penalties depends on how serious the violations were, whether anyone was hurt and other factors similar to those that determine DUI-related incidents. People can face misdemeanor or felony charges for BUI.

Whether you're taking out your cabin cruiser, sailboat, jet ski or even a canoe or rowboat, it's essential to know the applicable state and federal laws regarding watercraft and alcohol. If you have been arrested for BUI, take the matter seriously and seek the guidance of a criminal defense attorney experienced with BUI cases.