Spotlight Topic : Standing a proper lookout on recreational boats

A recent outing on the Maritime Safety Innovation Lab’s test platform highlighted the importance of standing a proper lookout and bridge resource management on recreational boats, as well as commercial vessels.  Operating as a crew of two, with one person at the helm and the other in an adjacent seat acting as lookout, the vessel was in transit from Baltimore Harbor to a nearby tributary.  From either seated position – helm or lookout – there are blindspots created by the structure of the cockpit hardtop.  While a great convenience during rough, rainy or cold weather, the semi-enclosed cockpit does hinder a proper lookout due to these blindspots.

Rule 5 of the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) states that,

“Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.”  

This applies to all vessels, both commercial and recreational.  There are numerous accidents involving recreational vessels of all sizes, ranging from kayaks to large sailing and power vessels, due to poor lookouts.  A couple of examples – one from the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) and one from the US National Transportation safety Board (NTSB) are linked below.

On this particular day in mid-May, it was on a weekend with nice weather – the perfect combination to start getting more boats on the water.  As was normal, the helmsman was navigating via electronic chart as well as maintaining a 360° lookout.  During the transit, the lookout would occasionally point out contacts that might be closing and, at one point, commented, “You see that sailboat on the starboard bow, right?” to the helmsman.

Unfortunately, the helmsman’s view was obstructed by the corner post of the cockpit cover and the sailboat was closing with a constant bearing and decreasing range – certainly posing a risk of collision.  The vessel was maneuvered to port to give the sailboat a wide berth and passed well clear.  On the return transit to Baltimore Harbor, a similar situation occurred.  The helmsman took avoiding action to remain clear of another small powerboat which necessitated a less than optimum route.  When the lookout challenged the route, the small powerboat was identified to the lookout.  Unfortunately, in this case, the vessel with risk of collision had been in the lookout’s blind spot.

The safety lessons identified in the UKMAIB’s safety flyer linked below are good practices to follow by recreational vessels:

  • It is essential that all vessels maintain a proper lookout at all times. 
  • Leisure boat users should never assume that they have been seen by other vessels, nor should they assume that the other vessels will always take avoiding action. 
  • Leisure sailors need to be particularly aware of closing speeds between their own vessels and other vessels. 

As summer approaches and there are more and more recreational boats on the water, keep these best practices in mind.  Let’s be safe out there!

Additional Reading and Links

USCG – Navigational Rules – International/Inland (COLREGS)

BoatTest – Does Your Visibility from the Helm Pass ABYC Muster?

UKMAIB – Flyer to the Leisure Industry – Proper Lookout

UKMAIB – Red Falcon-Phoenix – Collision – September 2018

NTSB – USCG CG 33118-Recreational Vessel – Collision – December 2009

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