In recent years, some of these organized parties on the water have started attracting more young adults (and it's almost exclusively young adults) in some places, mostly thanks to — what else? — social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Especially Facebook: In San Diego, the July 17 event in Mission Bay had 2,314 RSVPs on its Facebook fan page.
“Like, it’s just fun,” says Yvonne Foletta, who as a senior in 2003 at the University of California, Santa Barbara started the university’s Floatopia, the waterlogged party off the coast of the beach campus. “But when I really think about it — I hate saying it, but it's true — it’s not safe. People can drown.”
In fact, at last summer's Floatopia in Santa Barbara, 33 people were hospitalized for alcohol poisoning, heat exposure or cuts, according to nbclosangeles.com. And just last month, a California man drowned in the Colorado River after jumping from a float into the water during the Bullhead City-Laughlin River Regatta, an annual float in Bullhead City, Ariz. Over 10,000 people floated down the Colorado River during the event that day. (Steve Johnson, the city's public information officer, said the toxicology report hasn’t been completed, so it’s too soon to say whether alcohol was involved.)
But not every accident happens on the water. In 2006, after a July 4 rafting trip down the American River in Sacramento, Calif., 19-year-old Michael Dimitras was legally drunk when he crashed his Toyota 4Runner into a utility pole, killing two passengers in the car, also teenagers.
There isn't exactly a national yearly report on deaths and injuries tied to boozy river rafting, but the Centers for Disease Control does note that in up to half of adolescent and adult deaths associated with water recreation, alcohol is involved. The reasons are obvious: Too much booze impairs your balance, coordination and judgment — add too much sun and you're sunk, as heat and sun exposure heighten alcohol's impact.
In Bullhead City, where the river rafting event is actually put on by the city itself, alcohol isn't prohibited on the river, but it is discouraged, Johnson says. But in other cities and counties around the country, officials are struggling with what to do with the growing groups of partiers crowding rivers, lakes and coastlines.
This year, a handful of cities and counties have banned the parties on public waters. In February, Oregon's Clackamas County Commissioners voted to ban alcohol at county parks along the Clackamus River in that state.
“We might be the last generation that is able to drink in these urban areas,” says Matt Love, 46, a writer who lives in Newport, Ore., who this spring wrote about the alcohol ban and his younger days of floating down the river with friends, beer in hand, for oregonlive.com. “But, you know, things change.”
And in late July, the San Diego City Council voted to ban Floatopia, prohibiting alcohol up to three miles off the San Diego coast, says Capt. Christopher Ball of the San Diego Police Department.
In 2007, Sacramento County in California created a sort of compromise: It banned alcohol on the 20-plus-mile stretch of the American River it oversees — but only on the major summer holiday weekends: Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day. (Roberta MacGlashan, Sacramento County supervisor, says: “I’ve had constituents say things to me that they’d like to be able to have a beer, and I tell them, you know, it’s just three weekends out of the year. You’ve still got the other 49.”)
In many places, a pack of floating, drunk young'uns is mostly seen as a nuisance. A noisy, messy nuisance. “Not to take away from the seriousness, but we’re not talking about homicide,” says Ball, the San Diego police captain. “The types of issues we were running into were more quality of life issues for the community: drunkenness, public urination, noise, traffic issues.”
'Good chance you're not going to come back up'
Still, Ball says the city's police approached the city about extending the booze ban into the water primarily with an eye on young adults' safety. “You can go into any major city in the country and you can get drunk off your ass and fall over — it’s not good, but it’s not fatal,” Ball says. “But you’re out on 15 feet of water and you slip off that float and go underwater — there’s a damn good chance you’re not going to come back up.”
Alcohol is detected in the blood of 30 to 70 percent of people who drown during a recreational aquatic activity, shows a study published in the journal Injury Prevention in 2004. And people who have a blood-alcohol level of 0.10 g/100 ml have about 10 times the risk of death associated with recreational boating compared with people who haven’t been drinking. But even small amounts of alcohol can increase the risk, the report notes.
“The public health approach, it’s not about, how do you spoil people’s fun? It’s about, how do you take what’s going on and make it less risky?” says Jim Gogek, an anti-alcohol and drug abuse advocate who runs atodblog.com, which covers substance abuse. Gogek says he’s looking to change policies, not minds. “Wagging your finger at people doesn’t convince people to change,” he says.
And, it must be said, we’re talking about a demographic that knows how to drink. About 42 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds binge drink at least once a month, according to at study from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings in 2007.
Still, recent bans have been met with eye rolls from some. “The way that the city is attacking it as a public health issue, before people drown — let’s be honest, you’re in water up to your waist,” says Wayne Linger, 31, who lives in San Diego and is a Floatopia fan. “People who act like adults should get adult privileges.”
The argument many floating fans have against the bans can be boiled down to this: But it's just so much fun! True, Gogek says, but then, “a lot of people used to think drinking and driving was a lot of fun.”