Boat Like An Airline Pilot To Avoid Human Error

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Every hour of every day, many thousands of airline pilots sitting side-by-side in cockpits do something that, on the face of it, seems silly. Just before landing, the flying pilot lowers the landing gear, and three bright-green lights illuminate. Both pilots see the lights, and then the non-flying pilot asks: “Landing gear down?” The flying pilot must, by law, respond: “Check — three down and green.”

They both know the landing gear is down the second the green lights go on, but one still has to ask the question, and the other has to answer. This is not just done for the landing gear. It is rare that a pilot makes a move that isn’t confirmed by the co-pilot sitting next to him. Regardless of experience, commercial pilots can hardly flip a switch without confirming it with their (often much junior) partners.

These Federal Aviation Administration rules are not excessive government oversight. They exist because pilots and the agency know something most of us find hard to admit: Everyone — even someone with long experience — is capable of making mistakes. Everyone is capable of forgetting something. And when forgetting just one thing can get people killed, you make a list and check it every time.

Human Error Is A Myth

To my way of thinking, there is no more dangerous concept than the idea that human error has caused an accident. It’s dismissive. When we attribute a mishap to human error, we think someone made a mistake, and in some small part of our brains, we believe I wouldn’t have done that.

It’s not an error in your humanity that you forget things or miss clues or make mistakes; that is human nature. It’s only when we do these things during high-risk activities that they are mislabeled “human error.”

In any activity, boating included, we know going into it that any human involved will make mistakes. This might be the most important thing to understand in managing your own safety while boating:

You are going to screw up. You are definitely going to make mistakes. You are definitely going to forget something important.

Checklists take the load off your humanity and can keep you from making a mistake in an emergency.

Three Types of Lists

In commercial aviation, they break down checklists into normal and non-normal operations. (Non-normal is just an odd word for “emergency.”) In boating, I like to make three types of lists: condition and preparedness, emergency, and post-docking/anchoring.

Put another way, these lists are for before you leave, when things go sideways, and when you get back.

Before You Leave Lists

Obviously, there are things you should check that are specific to your vessel: These are manufacturers’ suggested maintenance and vessel checklists, often provided in the owner’s manual. They are what I call “gas and oil” checklists, and they should not be ignored. If you haven’t read that manual from cover to cover, you are making your first mistake.

However, it’s the final pre-sail safety check that most boaters miss. This is the checklist that can prevent emergencies and improves your odds if they do occur. While you don’t need to use the airline pilots’ challenge-and-response format, you should go through each item on the list, every time, before heading out.

If you already have a pre-sail safety checklist, congratulations. If it is tougher than mine, I’d love to see a copy. Mine is at This checklist should feel at least a little burdensome. Take mine and modify it for your vessel. If you think I went too far, just remember that in my last job I was a maritime accident investigator. Then, reconsider your stance.

Also vital is the pre-sail safety brief. This is a list of things to discuss with everyone on board before leaving the dock. This checklist’s purpose is to ensure you don’t forget to consider anything important prior to throwing off the lines. Again, use mine if you like.

When Things Go Sideways

Pilots have a QRH, the Quick Reference Handbook. Smoke in the cabin? They break out the QRH. Engine stall? The QRH has a procedure for that. When a problem arises, they go through each item on the QRH instruction list — line by line — until it is (hopefully) solved.

I know what you are thinking: I can make a QRH for my boat. Yes, you can. Now get on it. Because if forgetting under normal conditions falls somewhere between possible and easy, then forgetting during an emergency is somewhere between likely and definite.

As a reality check, consider that I’ve never investigated a man-overboard incident in which the captain of a vessel remembered to do everything from his own MOB procedures. Never. Not once. While this forgetfulness is usually due to inadequate practice of emergency procedures, you should definitely make a QRH for yourself and pull it out every time there is an emergency.

What is an emergency? If it’s something you would call pan-pan for, then a procedure for it should be in your QRH.

After-Docking Lists

I’ve seen a lot of boaters who have after-docking lists. You love your boat, and you want it to be left in good condition, of course. But after-docking is also a good time to make sure all of your emergency gear is where you think it is, and in the condition you want it to be.

The reason you want to check your safety gear now — when you won’t need it — is because you are human. If something went missing during your trip and you don’t find out until next time, just before throwing off the lines, you are less likely to handle that issue before heading to sea again. If you find out the personal locator beacon in your life jacket is damaged during your after-docking check, you’ll buy a new one before your next trip. Find out it’s broken 10 minutes before you start the engines, and you’ll make an excuse and promise yourself to pick one up next week.

Get to Work

If it feels like I just assigned you a lot of homework, I’m sorry. But not really.

This kind of work is what makes commercial airlines as safe as they are. What checklists do, for free, is take the burden off human nature and help stop our mistakes before they can have an impact. One pilot will ask another if he sees the green lights because he knows he is capable of failing to notice that one is red.

If a professional airline pilot with 20 years of experience has no problem asking someone else to confirm that he sees three green lights, who are we to think “I don’t need a checklist?” You do. Before you leave the dock, sit down and make a list of all the things you should remember. And make lists (when you are calm) of all the things you should do in an emergency.

Boat like an airline pilot, and acknowledge that you are human and fallible. Doing so will greatly increase the chances that you and your guests land safely at your next destination.

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue.