You don’t need the dark of night, dense fog or driving precipitation to miss a developing situation that will put you in harm’s way. A lack of situational awareness can develop from a lack of attention.
How often do we see someone at the helm bopping to the music in their ear buds or shooting the breeze with one of the crewmembers? And it’s not only recreational boaters who behave badly. Professionals also do stupid things. The collision records of shipping in the English Channel are filled with vessels colliding in clear weather.
The other night I was watching a television program called “Dogfights.” An Israeli pilot said that as he engaged enemy fighters, the radar in his F-15 picked up a target beyond visual range. He fired a rocket and watched as it failed to make contact. “Then I started looking out the window,” he said, describing shooting down the first of several enemy planes during his sortie.
Those words, “Then I started looking out the window,” struck a chord with me because so many problems arise from watch personnel concentrating on electronics and not looking out the window. It’s easy to do. Electronics today seem infallible. GPS puts you right on the money, right? Well, that’s not entirely true. GPS positional accuracy can be problematic at 3 knots and below. This explains why some people complain that their chart plotters show them positioned inland when they’re at anchor.
If you have radar, compare your radar fix with observational data. In other words, look out the window. If visibility is limited, obtain your fix by establishing circles of position, using the radar’s range-finding capability. That’s pretty much dead-on. Measure the distance from at least three objects; where the three circles intersect (or the “cocked hat” they form) is your location. Practice this in clear weather and compare it with your GPS/plotter position to gain competence and confidence in the technique.
In a less technological vein, some boaters see vessels close in on them and forget — or have never learned — about collision bearings. Without insulting our more competent readers, a collision bearing is a bearing that doesn’t change as vessels close on each other. Think about the extreme example of two vessels closing head-on. The relative (and all other) bearings will remain constant at 000 degrees (head-on) until … bang! The unchanging bearing holds true when vessels are closing from any direction. It’s a fundamental piece of knowledge that everyone on the water should have, yet there are publications filled with photos of boaters who disregard it.
One possible reason might be that, with large boats, the bearing may be changing with regard to one part of the closing vessel but be constant on another part. For example, the bow could be changing bearing while a point abaft the bow may be maintaining a constant bearing. This means the collision will occur at some point abaft the bow.
Another example of looking but not seeing involves weather. It is amazing how few people know how to read the sky. Books and articles by the score have been written about this skill, but most of us rely on the radio — usually AM radio reports given about every 10 minutes — The Weather Channel or NOAA weather broadcasts. The problem is that these are broad-brush reports, and they rarely include the local conditions that are of critical interest to boaters. Look out the window!
Look at boats sailing to weather of you. Are they bobbing and rocking a lot? It’s a sign that there is wind where they are. Racers know this trick. Regardless of whether the wind is a cat’s paw, a gust or a sustained increase, watching the behavior of sailboats at a distance to windward of you can clue you in to what’s coming your way.
Sailors can prepare to feather into the wind and gain distance to weather because as the wind speed increases it draws aft, allowing you to point higher. If you look — if you see — you can fall off and continue to sail your original course at speed. As the cat’s paw or gust passes, the wind again will draw forward.
Running an inlet demands constant attention and observation. You have to look at the conditions but also take into account the state of the tide and wind and other factors. I’ll admit that it’s hard to judge seas from windward. On a clear day you might notice the atmosphere appearing darker close above the wave tops because of spray that, viewed from the back of the wave, cannot be readily seen.
My pet peeve is the skipper who is not concentrating. You can’t operate a boat while music blasts in your ears or while carrying on an intense conversation or admiring the shape of a crewmember on another boat, fun though it may be. If you’re distracted — standing watch or at the helm — you will be slow to recognize a developing situation that could put you in harm’s way.
Look, see, be alert. The world needs more ’lerts.
This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue.