It was just past dinnertime on Father’s Day in June, and the 50-year-old dad at the helm was doing anything but celebrating. His day had probably started out great, enjoying time on the water along Florida’s Panhandle with his three children, but their 15-foot Jon Boat had become disabled, and now he was trying to paddle four miles back to shore as sunset loomed.

laser pointer

This is what pilots (of boats, airplanes and cars) see when a laser pointer shines in their eyes.

After the dad lost communications with his wife on shore, the U.S. Coast Guard was alerted. Sector Mobile out of Alabama issued an urgent broadcast, and Station Panama City in Florida launched a 45-foot Response Boat.

The crew on that boat launched flares and were searching for the family when—from two different sources on shore—laser beams struck two of the crew directly in the eyes.

Military personnel encounter the problem so often that the U.S. Air Force has a Laser Injury Guidebook that warns of flash blindness, hazy vision, burns, retinal bleeding and other injuries—all of which is why pointing a laser at an aircraft is a federal crime and a felony offense. Penalties for that alone can hit $250,000 and five years in prison, with another 20 years imprisonment for pointing a laser at a vessel (or more time if someone dies as a result).

And if that’s not enough, interfering with the safe operation of a vessel can get you another $5,000 to $25,000 in fines, depending on whether the vessel is recreational or military.

U.S. Coast Guard

Laser pointers can affect U.S. Coast Guard personnel in boats and helicopters from 2 miles away.

If you think you’re being safe by playing with your laser pointer on shore, think again. Some inexpensive models have beams that can extend more than two miles in range. You may think you’re pointing your nifty toy at a boat way out on the horizon, say to show it to a friend, but you may actually be endangering the lives of U.S. Coastguardsmen and the boaters they are trying to protect.

In this recent case, the two crew who responded on Florida’s Panhandle had to seek medical attention after the laser strike. The father and three kids made it to shore safely after paddling their way for several miles.

Their stories all ended without major tragedy, thankfully. Not all do, so be careful with your laser pointers.