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Eyes in the back of your head

Situational awareness is one of the essentials of good seamanship

Along with life jackets, a VHF radio, the right anchor and ground tackle, and a handful of other safety items, the most important thing you can pack aboard your boat is a mind-set known as “situational awareness.”

Simply put, situational awareness is being acutely in tune with everything taking place on your boat and around you on the water, from a wind shift to a vessel approaching from your starboard quarter to a slight change in engine noise. Situational awareness is having those proverbial eyes in the back of your head. A former Coast Guard rescue pilot once described it to me as “having your head on a swivel.” At the very least, it’s making sure you look around before making a course change or maneuver.

Anticipation is a key element of situational awareness: knowing how a particular wind and current will affect a rip or an inlet you are planning to transit, understanding where and when you’re most likely to run into commercial traffic, recognizing the conditions that will produce a late-afternoon fog before the gray curtain descends on you. It’s maintaining an attitude of preparedness.

Sloppiness has no place on the water — in boat handling, anchoring, navigating or other shipboard duties. Stay sharp. Situational awareness is the opposite of complacency. Don’t forget: Inattention is the enemy. Maintaining your focus and concentration is critical. The Coast Guard’s most recent report on boating safety listed “operator inattention” as the No. 1 contributing factor in accidents.

The critical knowledge that situational awareness provides is not necessarily what or how to do something, but when. The harbingers of potentially unwelcome things to come are endless: a sudden change in temperature or the color of the engine exhaust, the smell of antifreeze, a change in the color of the water. Spotting them early gives you an opportunity to take corrective action before something more serious happens.

And, as incongruous as it may sound, it’s possible to look right at something and not “see” it, especially when the usual on-water culprits — heat, noise, glare, etc. — conspire to lull you into a trance of sorts. In other words, you can look right past an approaching boat or miss a channel marker. The solution? You need to carefully scan the water ahead and concentrate on seeing objects.

Situational awareness means relying on all of your senses, not just your eyes. At night or in limited visibility, your ears and even your sense of smell can come in handy.

Things happen faster on the water than you might expect. Problems have a way of quickly escalating once they get a toehold, and a bad situation can turn worse if you miss the opportunity to take the proper corrective action. Where possible, be proactive. To head off potential trouble you need to be able to make good, sound decisions quickly, which means staying clear-headed and calm. Alcohol, sun, motion, vibration and other factors will dull your senses and reduce your ability to anticipate what’s waiting just over the horizon.

Prepare yourself by practicing “what-if” scenarios. What if someone falls over the side? What if you’re caught out in heavy weather? What if the engine suddenly dies? What if you wrap a pot warp around your shaft or propeller? Realistically assess your ability to handle these and other possible scenarios. Understand your limitations, and plug the gaps in your knowledge and abilities. Adopt an attitude of learning for a lifetime. Read books and articles, take courses, attend seminars, ask questions, and, most important, learn from your mistakes.

Developing and maintaining a weather eye is a hallmark of good seamanship. Be tuned in to even subtle changes in wind and seas, and what that might portend. Learn to read the clouds. Listen to what NOAA is calling for, but trust what your eyes and experience are telling you and make the necessary adjustments. Remember, a forecast might not reflect what’s happening in your immediate location. When fronts are moving and weather is unsettled, expect forecasting errors. And understand what the consequences are if a prediction of 15 to 20 knots becomes a steady 25 knots with gusts to 30. Will you, your boat and crew be able to handle it?

Know your boat well — both its capabilities and limitations. Although many boats will take far more punishment than skipper and crew are comfortable with, don’t ask your boat to do something it wasn’t designed or built for. That’s a sure way to get into trouble.

Large or small, sail or power, all boats demand at least a rudimentary understanding of the systems that enable them to run properly: engines, fuel, electrical, sails, rigging, steering, and so on. Obviously, the more you know, the better.

Be aware of your boat’s idiosyncrasies: its various noises, the way it should feel and behave across a broad range of speeds, seas and other operating conditions. And you should recognize immediately when something is different — and perhaps wrong. Seamanship starts before you leave the dock, with regular, preventive maintenance. Do your best to make sure mechanical gremlins don’t slip aboard your boat or into one of its systems.

Modern electronic navigation devices are technological wonders — fast, powerful and accurate. Take advantage of what they offer and learn to use your electronics on bluebird days so that when conditions are deteriorating and you really need them, you won’t be wishing you’d spent more time reading the manual and fooling with the buttons.

One last caveat on electronics and navigation: Don’t become so fixated watching a screen or an instrument or scrolling through menus that you miss what’s actually happening on the water. More than one accident has happened because the skipper had his head buried in the chart plotter or radar screen. Look up and look around often. And don’t neglect your paper charts or dead reckoning skills. Use them or lose them.

Invest in quality equipment, oversize where you can and it’s appropriate, and build redundancy into your boat, its systems and your safety gear. A simple example: If you need eyeglasses to read a chart, enter a waypoint or spot a nav aid, you’d be wise to carry a spare pair.

Don’t be a slave to a land-based schedule and mentality. You can’t control the weather, and on the water you ignore it at your peril. If you have to hunker down somewhere for longer than expected to wait out a blow, make the best of it. Be flexible and be prudent. Let wind and sea conditions dictate your movements.

And don’t forget: When you’re on the water, imagine that your head is on a swivel. Look all around.

Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in Seamanship & Safety, part of the Master’s Series produced by Soundings.

See related articles:

- Practice, practice, practice

- Think ahead

- Don't neglect your seacocks

- Keeping a lookout

November 2014 issue