Whenever there's a collision on the water, one of the first questions a marine investigator will ask a vessel's crew is, "Were you keeping watch?"
All boats are required to keep watch, whether you take to the water in a 13-foot Boston Whaler or an offshore commercial fishing vessel. "The rules of the road say you shall keep a watch. It doesn't say you should. You are required to — by sight and by sound," says Jerry Dzugan, director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, a national fishermen's safety organization. If a crew is not keeping watch and there is a collision and casualties, the skipper or crew could be held criminally as well as civilly liable, he says.
It's foolish for a fishing vessel, pleasure boat — any vessel, really — not to keep an eye out for ships in a busy seaway, he says. "You cannot assume the other guy is keeping a watch." Often he is not — not a proper one, anyway.
Dzugan says he was taking some training on the bridge of a Baltic ferry years ago, and the third mate on watch at the time was reading a magazine instead of keeping an eye on the radar and the seaway ahead. "I could see a fishing vessel off on our starboard bow," Dzugan says. "[The watchstander] was not paying attention to it. He knew he was big and the other guy would have to give way."
It's not easy to keep a proper watch on busy waters, even for an experienced hand, Dzugan says. The watchstander should keep an eye on the water; keep an ear out for horns, whistles or bells; monitor channel 16; and watch the radar, chart plotter and depth sounder. If the watchstander notices another vessel in the vicinity, he or she is responsible to be "proactive and set up a communications schedule with that vessel," Dzugan says.
In heavy traffic, "It can be hard sometimes to figure out what's going on," he says. Watchstanding is not a catch-as-catch-can job.
Dzugan recommends equipping boats with AIS. AIS, or Automatic Identification System, was originally developed as a collision-avoidance tool to enable commercial vessels to electronically "see" each other in all conditions. The system transmits a vessel's information — position, course, speed, whether it's under way or at anchor, and name and type of vessel — to other AIS-equipped vessels and receives the same information about them, overlaid on radar or a chart plotter. Class A and B systems transmit and receive data, while Class C units only receive data.
Most commercial vessels are required to carry AIS, and the Coast Guard is considering expanding the carriage requirements to fishing vessels 65 feet or longer, high-speed passenger vessels, and vessels carrying or moving dangerous cargoes, among others, and require carriage in all navigable U.S. waters.
The Coast Guard says Class B models for recreational and light commercial vessels can be found for around $600 to $5,000. "It's an excellent tool for telling other boats where I am and who I am," Dzugan says.