Restaurants in Annapolis, Solomons Island and Ocean City have joined a state program to reduce alcohol-related boating accidents by offering free, nonalcoholic drinks and prizes to sober skippers.
The program, called Designated Skippers, operates much like the Designated Driver program. Boaters choose someone from their party who pledges to drive the boat and to abstain from alcoholic beverages while they are on the water.
The designated skipper gets a yellow, dated wristband that entitles him or her to free, nonalcoholic drinks.
The Maryland Natural Resources Police, Buck Distributing Co., Carey Distributors Inc. and Miller Brewing Co. are promoting and paying for the program, said John Verrico, a DNR spokesman. The announcement yesterday in Annapolis was timed for the beginning of the Fourth of July weekend.
"It's a popular weekend for boating, and we want people to know that it's OK to stay sober and we want to help," Mr. Verrico said. "It's just as socially unacceptable to be behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated as it is to be behind the helm of a boat in the same state."
Designated skippers are eligible for monthly prize drawings for boating equipment, ranging from a life jacket to a nautical guide almanac.
Mr. Verrico said that about 15 establishments in Anne Arundel County already participate in the program, along with four in Solomons Island and about 14 others in Ocean City and Charles and Prince George's counties.
Organizers estimate that about 100 people have participated in the program since it began in May and that more will get involved as the warm weather brings out boaters.
Participating establishments can be recognized by their red-and-white Designated Skipper Program signs, which have logos of the Maryland Natural Resources Police and Miller Sharp's nonalcoholic brew on them.
Giselle Daniells, a waitress at Juan Alfredo's Waterfront Cafe in the Annapolis Marriott Hotel, said that dockside restaurant is packed on weekend afternoons with boaters coming to eat and drink.
"Nobody likes it to be said of them that they are reckless on the water, so they try not to drink when driving a boat, but if an accident happened right out in front of this place, people would really start to participate in the program," she said. "Unfortunately, it may take that to get some people involved."
About 70 percent of Maryland fatalities on the water in 1993 were alcohol-related, according to Major Mike Howard of the DNR police. Nationwide, about 40 percent of all 1993 boating accidents involved alcohol.
Mr. Howard recalled the collision of two boats on Memorial Day several years ago in Ocean City that killed four people and seriously injured five others.
Mr. Howard said the driver of one of the boats, who later was convicted of manslaughter, had a blood alcohol level "well over" the legal standard for drunkenness.
"The lives of four people and their families were ruined, and the life of everyone aboard will never be the same," Mr. Howard said. "And it was all directly attributable to alcohol."
Mr. Howard said he is unsure whether the Designated Skippers program could have prevented that accident but that the program will show people it is "socially acceptable to go out with friends and put on a wristband and stay sober."