June 16, 2003 12:00 PM

Half-naked partyers guzzle beer by the case and writhe to booming rap; scores of sports boats and cabin cruisers drift into a teeming mass: Welcome to another summer weekend on Lake Havasu. California sheriff’s deputies Ron Wells and Chuck Watson maneuver their patrol boat into the bacchanalia and around the hundreds of vessels moored just feet apart in one of the lake’s notorious party spots. They’re looking for trouble, and find it along the lake when two men on a Jet Ski make a turn so sharp one of them flies off. “How much have you had to drink?” Wells asks the driver. “Over the course of the day, a six-pack, maybe,” he replies. A screening test shows his blood alcohol level is .133, beyond the legal .08 limit and enough to arrest him for BUI – boating under the influence. “He’s a good kid and he was just having fun,” says Wells. “But better he go to jail for a BUI than for manslaughter.”

As they head into another summer season, authorities across the country are cracking down on drunken boaters to stem a rising tide of alcohol-related accidents and deaths. According to the Coast Guard, 34 percent of the 681 boating fatalities in 2001 most likely involved alcohol, up 8 percent from 2000. Last year at Lake Havasu, one of the nation’s deadliest boating areas, six of seven fatalities were caused by drunken boaters. “No food, too much sun, lots of liquor, and that’s all it takes,” says Watson, 54, part of a 50-person task force that patrols this resort area straddling the Arizona-California border. “We get people who have driven all night just to get here. They arrive at 5 in the morning, and by 6 they’re already on their boats, drinking and partying.”

Lake Havasu: Sheriff Al Huff administers a Breathalyzer test; the man he arrests insists, "I was just parking."

Most of those who flock to fun-in-the-sun locales like Lake Havasu and the Florida coast are harmless law abiders on the prowl for tans and tall ones. “It’s a great way to spend some quality time with your friends and just relax,” says Lisa Lopez, 34, an Orlando bookkeeper who has been boating for 20 years. “I’ve never had a bad experience out there.”

Sometimes, though, the good times get out of hand. PEOPLE tagged along with Wells and Watson – and with safety officers in Florida, which last year led the nation in boating deaths, with 52 – as they patrolled party-boat hotspots on the first two weekends of peak season, beginning over Memorial Day. In many areas, Lake Havasu included, there are no speed limits or licensing requirements. It’s okay to cruise around with an open beer as long as the operators don’t exceed the legal alcohol limits set for them. Nor is fear much of a deterrent: Many people believe imbibing on boats is far less risky than drinking in cars. In fact, “being drunk is worse on the water,” maintains Boaters Against Drunk Driving founder Jim Carlin, 51. “Factor in weather conditions, the movement of the water and not having a brake, and someone just above the legal limit on a boat is actually much drunker than they think.”

That’s the reason Ron Wells, 52, keeps extra towels on hand; he uses them to wrap up limbs severed when boaters fall into the water and get slashed by propellers. “We call them prop chops,” says Watson, who recently recovered a severed foot that was later reattached. Yet those boaters are the lucky ones. In March 2002, for instance, college freshmen Andrea Goodman and Cherlyn Katsuno drowned in Lake Havasu after their 21-ft. sport boat slammed into another craft (see box). “It’s hard to think that a place that has so much enjoyment for so many people,” says Goodman’s sister Sarah, “could be so painful to someone else.”

Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.: In 1997 a drunk speedboat skipper sliced through this cabin cruiser, killing all six people on board.

To prevent such disasters, the River Watch 2003 task force deployed 13 vehicles on Lake Havasu this Memorial Day weekend. The plan was to stop boats for minor infractions – a passenger dangling his feet in the water, for instance – and test suspicious operators. At one point the deputies tell a young man in leopard-print shorts to idle his 18-ft. twin-engine jet boat. The man claims he drank four beers “in the last couple of hours,” but fails his Breathalyzer test. Then it’s off to the Pontoon, a floating arrest-processing center docked nearby – where he promptly dozes off.

And so it goes. One woozy teenager escorted to the Pontoon claims he only drank “a little beer,” but can barely keep his eyes open. A good-natured waiter in his early 20s says he has sobered up since downing “six or seven” beers earlier in the day, his failed Breathalyzer notwithstanding. On his way to jail he waves at the deputy who arrested him and offers a friendly “Hey, dude, it’s been real.”

The scene isn’t much different across the country in Florida, where Lt. Kent Harvey of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spent the weekend patrolling the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, just south of Daytona Beach. On one evening run Harvey, 31, boards a boat idling without its running lights on. Its operator, in his 20s, says he had eight beers earlier in the day but none in the last five hours. Still, he fails a series of eye-and hand-coordination tests and is handcuffed. During his arrest, one of his three friends laughs and takes pictures. “This isn’t funny,” the young man says. “This is serious.” No one laughs when officer Steve LaRoche smells alcohol aboard a 27-ft. center console boat and spies a half-finished bottle of beer near the boat’s controls. The operator, in his 30s, flunks his Breathalyzer, and Harvey reads him his rights. In all, Harvey’s unit makes nine BUI collars over Memorial Day weekend. On Lake Havasu the task force arrests 49 for BUI (those convicted faced around a $1,700 fine and a two-day boating safety class). There are three reported deaths, one the result of a boat crash; investigations of all three will determine if alcohol played a part.

The task force and others like it will keep up their aggressive patrolling through the summer in hopes of preventing another crash like the one that killed Goodman and Katsuno. Natalie Reed, 20, survived the wreck that took the lives of her close friends, but is now haunted by memories of that night – and of the day that followed. “All our parents were hugging us, they were so grateful that we were okay, but Andrea and Cherlyn’s parents were just in another world,” she says. “You never think that you can take a boat trip with seven girls and only come back with five.”

Anatomy of an Accident

March 29, 2002: “This was our first spring break,” says Natalie Reed, now 20, of the happy occasion that brought her and eight college-age friends to Lake Havasu. After a day of barbecuing, Jet-Skiing and partying, the group boarded a 21-ft. sport boat operated by Reed’s boyfriend Taylor Key, then 22, for a trip back to their hotel. Around 8 p.m. the boat slammed into an idling 24-ft. deckboat and sailed over it, throwing the seven girls sitting in front overboard. Andrea Goodman and Cherlyn Katsuno, both 19 and former high school classmates of Reed’s, drowned. (One deckboat passenger was hospitalized.) “It was such a freak accident – nobody saw the other boat,” says Key’s passenger Paul Canfield, 23. “You can try to point a finger to as many different people as you want. But we weren’t really doing anything wrong.” Police, however, maintain that Key was legally drunk. He is awaiting trial on charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated while operating a vessel.

– MELISSA MORRISON and ANA FIGUEROA on Lake Havasu, SIOBHAN MORRISSEY in Daytona Beach, ANGELA BRESNAHAN in Washington, D.C., and NOAH ISACKSON in Chicago

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