In the Steering and Sailing Section 1 of the Coast Guard Navigation Rules, Rule 5 states that "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." Simply put, look around and listen for danger in all conditions so you can make good decisions and avoid hitting another boat.
When I was first required to learn to maintain a lookout watch in the Coast Guard, I remember thinking to myself how ridiculously simple that seemed. Just look around you - which doesn't everyone do that while they are on a boat anyway? Well, yes and no. The Navigation Rules require operators of vessels to maintain a proper lookout for good reason. Many boating accidents and collisions occur because the operator failed to maintain a proper lookout. While the requirements to maintain a lookout watch are simple, the advice to take it seriously and make it a practice isn't always heeded.
Once complacency in boating sets in, it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security that endangers you and your passengers. As an operator of a boat, it is your responsibility to maintain a proper lookout at all times, thus ensuring the safety of your vessel and passengers. Here are a few basic guidelines to follow:
Whether you are boating alone or with friends and family, maintain a lookout for anything that could present a danger such as other boats, land, sand bars, rocks, reefs, buoys or lights, debris in the water, marine mammals, and discolored water. If you are boating with others, assign your passengers with the task of lookout and position them so that they can easily see in all directions. Let them know what they are looking for - anything and everything that could collide with the boat.
Tell passegengers to report anything they see along with the direction and distance from your vessel. Depending upon your personality, this instruction could be something like, "Hey man, can you keep a lookout for me? Just let me know when you see anything and where it's at." Or, if you are like me, can you assign family members to the job of lookout (it's a military thing). Either way, be sure the people aboard your vessel know that to help you pilot the boat, they should report anything they see or hear, including observations of the boat itself, so that you are aware and can make a "full appraisal of the situation."
The person(s) who are maintaining a lookout should remain alert and give their full attention to the task. Boating should be fun, but while the boat is in motion, consider limiting distracting conversations and activities for the sake of safety. Also, asking passengers to remain in their seat while the boat is underway is always a good idea, especially if they don't have much boating experience and don't have their "sea legs."
Maintaining a lookout at night, in the fog, or in hazardous sea conditions is critical. Be extra alert in one of these conditions whether you are alone or have other people aboard your boat. Scanning, or moving your head side to side while keeping your eyes fixed, is a good technique to use all the time, and binolculars also work well for maintaining a lookout at night.
If you are in the fog, your ears will be your best lookout asset. Always slow down! Then listen for bells or horns as well as other boat motors away from the distraction of conversation or radios. Also, be aware of sea conditions while in the fog. If you are making way and suddenly feel a few larger waves, this could indicate you are near the wake of another boat.
The key to maintaining a proper lookout is simply making it a habit and using common sense. If you follow these guidelines, you will be able to assess possible danger and make good decisions to avoid collisions with objects or other boats, which will keep you and your passengers safe.