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Situational awareness

Situational awareness (noun): the perception of environmental elements with respect to time and/or space, the comprehension of their meaning and the projection of their status after some variable has changed, such as time. It involves being aware of what is happening in the vicinity to understand how information, events and one’s own actions will impact goals and objectives, both immediately and in the near future. — Wikipedia

Ask any 10 sailors what situational awareness means, and you will get 10 different answers. It begins with what our senses convey to us at any moment in time. Therefore it is somewhat subjective.

Keep a weather eye, but realize that sooner or later you will be caught out in more wind and seas than you counted on.

Someone once said that the first commandment of seamanship is to keep the water out of the boat. Situational awareness allows us to do just that. In many instances this is what keeps most mariners out of trouble. It is our very own early warning system — INW, or indications and warnings, as they say in the intelligence community.

Situational awareness begins by being alert to what’s going on inside and outside the boat. What’s normal and what’s different? And when something is different, what does it mean? Every boat has a norm. At various speeds and sea conditions a boat will give off certain sounds, vibrations, odors, running trim, handling characteristics, etc. The list is close to endless. After running a boat for a while, we learn what is normal and what is safe for that boat.

What’s happening outside the boat is equally important. As a boat travels through space and time, the situation rarely remains the same. Things change, often in direct proportion to your own vessel’s speed, and can occur from any direction. There may be overtaking or crossing situations with other vessels. Geography and hydrography will change. The wind can take a new direction and velocity, which often can be harbingers of bad weather, even with NOAA radio’s more advanced and timely early warning system. Changes in sea height, shape and color could indicate a change in depth.

Flooding or taking on water, while in direct violation of the first commandment, often telegraphs itself in many ways before the main event. Unless something catastrophic occurs, flooding is usually progressive, the warning signs protracted and abundant. There might be changes in running trim, the size of your wake, engine rpm and boat speed, as well as engine overheating, sluggish helm, exhaust smoke, odors from a ruptured exhaust line, an unusual list, etc. Each of these can mean something that is not good.

Several years ago, in the early spring, the editor of a national newspaper and her husband bought a new diesel-powered Albin 33+3. Their first extended cruise took them to Solomon’s Island, Md. En route, the engines began to lose speed and rpm. The editor called the buying broker for advice. After several telephone calls back and forth, it was decided that because the engines were not overheating they could have clogged fuel filters and not to worry.

Arriving at Solomon’s, the husband turned on the bilge pumps, as it was his practice not to run them while under way. No effort was made to determine whether clogged fuel filters were to blame. In fact, there was no evidence that he went into the engine room after shutting the engines down.

After an uneventful night on the hook they got under way again the next morning. The boat immediately came up to normal cruising speed. The fact that the engine rpm problem apparently “fixed itself” did not grab anyone’s attention. Bilge pumps were once again turned off. About two hours later the boat again began to gradually lose speed and rpm. No one on board happened to notice the gradual change in running trim or any other changes in the boat’s behavior.

Deciding to call the broker again, the wife began her descent to the main deck from the flybridge to get a cell phone from the cabin. Only then did she notice that Chesapeake Bay waters were beginning to lap over the top of the transom. She alerted her husband, who quickly pulled back the throttles. The boat promptly sank stern-first into 40 feet of water. Fortunately, a charterboat was nearby, and both people were quickly plucked from the cold water. The boat was successfully salvaged the next day. The insurance company, anxious to minimize its potential loss, authorized the immediate removal and pickling of the engines, precluding any chance of determining the source of the flooding.

Although the boat telegraphed numerous signs that something was wrong during a relatively long period of time, neither the editor nor her husband took notice. Perhaps it was lack of experience, and they did not know what is normal. However, having a lot of experience doesn’t always help, either.

Experienced crew, no clue

Some years ago, a 180-foot Coast Guard buoy tender was undergoing a full-power trial in Chesapeake Bay. The crew had just come down from Alaska to pick up the renovated cutter at the Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore. It was a cloudless, sunny day in May with virtually no wind; it hardly gets better on Chesapeake Bay.

On the last leg of the trial downbound on the east side of the ship channel, the young ensign navigator laid out a course line over a section of bay bottom labeled with the No. 9. (Why the cutter was on the east side of the ship channel when they were downbound is another story.) The commanding officer then asked, “Is the chart in feet or fathoms?”

“Fathoms,” the ensign quickly responded.

During a follow-up investigation, both ensign and commanding officer opined that they were sailors in Alaska, where all the charts were in fathoms. They barely blinked when they were reminded that the previous chart used for the same full-power trial was marked “Soundings in Feet.”

Nearing the 9-foot depth, the ship on her own accord started to head to the right toward deeper water. As many experienced sailors know, displacement-hull boats don’t like shallow water and will seek deep water on their own if only someone keeps his hands off the helm. The helmsman, a first-class quartermaster, kept fighting the helm to keep the cutter on course. Until this point, no one else on the bridge was aware of anything amiss. No one noticed the unusually large wake now trailing as the cutter starting “sniffing the bottom.” No one but the helmsman noticed that the cutter was changing course when she started to veer steadily to the right. When she finally ran out of water, the cutter was 40 degrees off course. Fortunately, the bottom was soft, and she floated free several hours later, none the worse. Several egos did not fare as well.

Learn to read the water, and watch the tide, current and wind.

Complacency and inattention are the archenemies of situational awareness, only slightly ahead of hubris. On this day there were numerous indications and warnings that something was going wrong. Yet not one member of this supposedly very experienced crew picked up on any of the clues. The same commanding officer ran a similar buoy tender aground in Alaska with substantial damage only three months earlier in February. The May event ensured that his career at sea with the Coast Guard was over.

Uncertain? Stop to check

Situational awareness is not always about what goes wrong. Frequently, recognizing that something is not right before it goes wrong also can be useful. Some years ago I delivered a Bertram motoryacht to the municipal marina in Racine, Wis. On my approach I expected to see two parallel rock jetties running about 90 to 270 degrees, per the nautical chart. It was a bright, sunny day with no wind and unlimited visibility.

About a mile out, I realized that there were no jetties in sight. All I could see was a lot of riprap running perpendicular to my 270-degree intended course, with boats moored behind it. I stopped, took a GPS fix, plotted it on the chart and scanned the chart again to confirm what I was supposed to be looking for. Nothing doing — the entrance to the marina remained out of sight. I was both lost and knew where I was, all at the same time. Then, lo and behold, out from behind the jetty comes a small boat heading 180 degrees. It turned out that the city had made substantial changes to the marina entrance since my chart book had been published.

When I arrived at the dock, the owner greeted me by saying, “I saw you coming in and then you just stopped. What happened?”

My response: “When I realized I did not know where I was, I stopped to figure it out.”

Confronted with uncertainty, the best advice often is to stop (if you can) to figure it out. The lesson here is that uncertainly can be a very effective tool when dealing with keeping the water out. Admitting to yourself and your crew that you are uncertain is sometimes the most difficult part. Even at sea, humility is a virtue and a potential lifesaver.

At sea, particularly offshore, dangerous situations have a habit of rearing their ugly head, often at the most unexpected times. Situational awareness is also about anticipation of the unexpected, even when we don’t expect it. Many years ago an executive officer taught me about the six P’s: prior planning prevents piss poor performance. That was just a sailor’s way of saying be prepared for what could reasonably go wrong and have a plan to deal with it.
Unfortunately, we can’t buy situational awareness at West Marine. It begins with alertness in the absence of complacency. It’s honed by experience, our own and that of others. The mistakes of those who have gone before us can help us avoid repetition. Most of us have not had the opportunity to go to sea with Magellan, Capt. James Cook or Joshua Slocum, but we can read their books and books written about them and other experienced mariners. Alertness and vigilance absent complacency — and an awareness of what we know and don’t know — will go a long way toward keeping the water out.

See related articles:

- Real-world lessons

- Watch your wake

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue.