Alcohol and sailing – consequences for intoxicated skipper

Every sailing season is a good time to remind the rules of drinking alcohol on yachts in Poland.

It is an important issue especially that there are still so many amateur sailors who do not obey to the law, includng alcohol restrictions.

Let’s make it clear: operating a yacht after consuming alcohol or under the influence of intoxicants is prohibited.

It is a serious threat to other participants in water traffic, infrastructure (e.g., docks, bridges, quays, navigational signs), as well as to the lives and health of yourself and your crew.

Moreover, it often excludes the insurance company’s liability for inflicting damages.

Finally, it can be considered a crime which may result losing the driving license for all motor vehicles.

So, what are the consequences for an intoxicated skipper?

In criminal law, a waterway is the same what a public road is in land traffic.

That is why, if you operate a motorized vehicle on a waterway under the influence of alcohol, you are exposed to serious legal consequences.

A motorized vehicle includes, for example, a motor yacht, jet ski, sailing yacht using an engine, or any other boat powered by a motor (whether gasoline or electric), even if additional qualifications are not required to use it.

Blood alcohol levels

The legal consequences of your actions depend on the level of alcohol in your body.

“Post-alcohol use” refers to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.2 ‰ to 0.5 ‰ (or in exhaled air, from 0.1 mg to 0.25 mg per liter).

“Intoxication” refers to a concentration exceeding 0.5 ‰ (or 0.25 mg).

Legal penalties – post-alcohol use state

If you operate a motorized vehicle on a waterway while in a “post-alcohol use” state or under the influence of a similar substance, you may face a penalty of imprisonment or a fine of no less than 2,500 PLN (up to 5,000 PLN).

Additionally, you will receive a ban on driving any type of vehicle for a period of 6 months to 3 years. The court should determine whether this ban applies only to specific types of vehicles (e.g. in water traffic) or more broadly (including land traffic). This depends on the circumstances of the specific case.

Legal penalties – intoxication state

If you operate a motorized vehicle on a waterway in a state of “intoxication,” you are liable for a crime, which could result in a fine, restriction of liberty, or imprisonment for up to 2 years. In addition, a mandatory penalty of a ban on driving all types of vehicles or specific types of vehicles for at least 3 years will be imposed.

Alcohol under sail

Slightly less severe penalties apply to operating a watercraft that is not a motorized vehicle. In this case, for operating under the influence of alcohol (or a similar substance), you may face a penalty of imprisonment or a fine of no less than 1,000 PLN (up to 5,000 PLN).

For operating in a state of intoxication, you could be penalized with imprisonment or a fine of no less than 2,500 PLN (up to 5,000 PLN).

In both cases, there is no obligatory ban on operating motorized vehicles. However, the court, after reviewing the case, may impose such a ban, which may range from 6 months to 3 years.

Craft not classified as motorized vehicles include various smaller sailing yachts, kayaks, water bikes, or rowing boats.

Complications can arise when dealing with larger sailing yachts that have an auxiliary engine. In practice, it is generally accepted in jurisprudence that operating a sailing yacht under the influence of alcohol while sailing without using the engine is the less severe case. However, if you were navigating with the engine alone or with both sails and the engine, stricter legal liability may come into play.

Who is punished: the captain or the skipper?

This issue is also quite interesting.

The specifics of water traffic and its lower dynamics together with larger maneuvering areas may suggest different lines of defense.

What should be done about the so-called temporary skipper who was briefly holding the helm or wheel while in a state of alcohol use, in the presence of a captain who was responsible for the safety of the maneuver?

Unfortunately, we do not have good news for this line of defense.

It is widely accepted that the person who is operating the vessel, i.e., the skipper, is held accountable, even if they were in control for only a brief period.

In summary, if you are under the influence of alcohol, or especially in a state of intoxication, you should not touch the helm and should not operate the vessel at all.

Removing a yacht from the water

A yacht operated by a skipper who is under the influence of alcohol or a similar substance can be removed from the water when there is no other way to secure it (i.e., when there is no person with the qualifications to operate the detained vessel on board).

This means that the vessel will be taken to a guarded port or marina. In the case of no nearby guarded port or marina, it will be left in a designated, guarded parking area until the fees for removal and storage of the vessel are paid.

This decision can be made by police or municipal enforcement officers conducting inspection activities.

One more point to note: this decision can also be made when the yacht is anchored.

It is not limited to moored vessels.

Current regulations regarding seizure

According to planned changes in the Polish criminal law (which will come into effect later this year), a person involved in a traffic incident on the road whose alcohol concentration is equal to or greater than 1.5 promille in their blood or 0.75 mg/dm3 in exhaled air must be prepared for the seizure of their vehicle, and if that is not possible, they must be prepared for the seizure of its equivalent value.

The equivalent value of the vehicle should correspond to its value specified in the insurance policy, and in the absence of an insurance policy, the average market value of the vehicle. It will take into account the brand, model, year of manufacture, body type, type of drive and engine, engine capacity, power, and approximate mileage. No expert is needed to determine all of this.

In other words, if the seizure of the vehicle is not possible, for example, due to its destruction during the incident, the amount of the penalty will depend on the value of the vehicle.

And here’s an important piece of information.

Seizure only applies to perpetrators who are operating a motor vehicle in land traffic.

As of now, the Polish legislator has not foreseen the seizure of a yacht or the obligation for intoxicated skippers to pay the equivalent value of the vessel.

In summary, alcohol is for humans. Many sailors cannot imagine a good voyage without a beer, whiskey, or a bottle of rum. However, we should consume alcohol responsibly and in moderation. Remember the safety of all participants in water traffic, as well as the rules of sailing ethics and good maritime manners.


Compiled by:

Kinga Fabisiak

Patryk Zbroja

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