SEAMANSHIP

Soundings - - Contents - BY PAT MUNDUS

Main­tain­ing a proper look­out in­volves con­stant ad­just­ment based on the pre­vail­ing cir­cum­stances.

Com­mon sense and good seamanship frame one of the most im­por­tant as­pects of op­er­at­ing a ves­sel: main­tain­ing a proper look­out. COLREGS Rule 5 says it all in one sen­tence: “Ev­ery ves­sel shall at all times main­tain a proper look­out 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.”

Although ex­pe­ri­enced cap­tains do it with­out even think­ing about it, main­tain­ing a proper look­out is a big re­spon­si­bil­ity. It can be thought of as a man­age­ment phi­los­o­phy. Af­ter all, “proper” and “ap­pro­pri­ate” are meant to ap­ply to any and all sit­u­a­tions un­der­way. The cap­tain needs to in­crease or de­crease, ha­bit­u­ally, what is needed to main- tain a proper look­out with chang­ing con­di­tions such as fog, dark­ness, speed, traf­fic con­ges­tion, a con­cen­trated fish­ing fleet or trap buoys.

A “proper look­out” is not so much a per­son as it is an as­sess­ment sys­tem. It can be the sole op­er­a­tor of the ves­sel or an ad­di­tional per­son’s vig­i­lant eyes and ears. On a clear day with no traf­fic, it’s easy to as­sess the surroundings from the helm by sight and hear­ing, sim­ply by stay­ing alert, look­ing around the whole hori­zon and lis­ten­ing. But if fog rolls in or you are cross­ing heav­ily traf­ficked ship­ping lanes or pass­ing through an ac­tive fish­ing fleet, it’s time to in­ten­sify the look­out ef­fort. That’s where the “as well as by all avail­able means” de­scrip­tion comes in. Turn on the radar, post an ad­di­tional per­son with­out other du­ties, or re­duce speed.

In the early days, look­outs’ du­ties were ba­sic: watch out for ves­sels, lights, shal­low water or reefs, buoys, even ice­bergs. Hav­ing a spy­glass or binoc­u­lars was a bonus.

To­day, “all avail­able means” in­clude, but are not limited to, radar, AIS, an au­to­matic radar plot­ting aid, ves­sel traf­fic ser­vices, VHF ra­dio and good old re­li­able binoc­u­lars. The cap­tain has to as­sess the ves­sel’s needs, make sure ev­ery­one tasked with look­out duty has, and knows how to use, the equip­ment — and knows which in­for­ma­tion is ex­pected to be de­liv­ered to the op­er­a­tor.

The cap­tain needs to as­sess the abil­i­ties of the per­son look­ing out as well. Poor eye­sight, side ef­fects of sea­sick­ness med­i­ca­tion or fa­tigue, glare from the sun or the boat’s own lights, spray, wind, or an ob­struc­tion on deck can af­fect vi­sion. We all know how a cell phone — even with no ser­vice — can be dis­tract­ing. Hear­ing, too, may be im­paired by wind, rig­ging and en­gine noise. Or ear­buds.

At night, many cap­tains pre­fer to be called if a lone look­out is un­sure about a tar­get. Some­times a two-per­son ver­i­fi­ca­tion is needed on small boats. De­ci­pher­ing a tar­get can be dif­fi­cult af­ter dark, es­pe­cially in a lumpy sea­way with­out radar. If some­thing feels weird in your stom­ach, it usu­ally is weird. Trust your in­stincts. It’s bet­ter to wake the cap­tain than to be un­cer­tain.

You may be won­der­ing why there are so many radar-as­sisted col­li­sions. This is where all the ex­pe­ri­enced mariners scratch their heads and chime in with the same com­ment: “They need to look out the win­dow!”

Radar is not re­quired on recre­ational boats, but if a func­tional radar is aboard, it must be used when­ever it could con­trib­ute to the qual­ity of the look­out. As with all tools, radar must be used cor­rectly. Keep­ing vis­ual track of tar­gets goes hand-in-hand with us­ing elec­tron­ics. A steady bear­ing and de­creas­ing range mean a col­li­sion is im­mi­nent. A rela-

tive bear­ing mov­ing aft hints that the tar­get will pass astern, and one with a for­ward change fore­tells of a tar­get pass­ing ahead.

An empty radar screen does not al­ways mean your boat is alone. Some small craft, sand­bars and ice make very poor radar tar­gets. A weak con­tact could be lost when the radar op­er­a­tor tweaks the sen­si­tiv­ity to re­duce sea-sur­face clut­ter, or the radar might be on the wrong range set­ting. A look­out may ob­serve a radar con­tact and make an as­sump­tion with­out tak­ing chang­ing con­di­tions into ac­count.

Radar-as­sisted col­li­sions oc­cur mainly be­cause radar ob­servers do not dou­ble-check what they’re see­ing on the screen against other in­for­ma­tion. Dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween as­sump­tion and fact makes for ac­cu­rate de­ci­sion-mak­ing. It’s easy to be­come overde­pen­dent on radar by as­sum­ing a ma­chine will do your job for you. Guard against re­lin­quish­ing the look­out func­tion to elec­tron­ics alone. Look out the win­dow.

Even though the cho­sen meth­ods of main­tain­ing a proper look­out are left to each mariner, it’s the cap­tain’s job to make sure each crew mem­ber is trained and knows what is ex­pected of him, and that the equip- ment is in good work­ing or­der. Con­stantly ap­praise the sit­u­a­tion and risk of col­li­sion, and use all means avail­able on board. Dou­ble- check all those means against one an­other. Call a ship­mate for a sec­ond opin­ion if you are un­sure. In the ex­treme, if you are still un­able to ac­quire the in­for­ma­tion you need, then re­duce speed or stop.

Ev­ery­one off- watch down be­low is count­ing on you to be vig­i­lant. Col­li­sions are of­ten pre­ventable by main­tain­ing a proper look­out.

Good old re­li­able binoc­u­lars are just one means to main­tain­ing a proper look­out.

Chang­ing light con­di­tions or an in­crease in marine traf­fic are rea­sons to add a pair of eyes on deck to en­sure a proper look­out.

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