No room for error

Doug King | VOLUME 30, ISSUE 1

Situational awareness – it’s more than just knowing where you are.

Travelling to inland and coastal waterways to enforce safety rules and conduct search and rescue operations, as well as training many people to operate small craft, my eyes were opened to both how enjoyable boating is, but also how unforgiving it can be, even as a consequence of small mistakes.

Over the years I have been constantly dismayed at the number of accidents and incidents that could have been avoided if boaters fully understood and actively employed good situational awareness.

The importance of situational awareness is borne out by the results of a five-year study (2003-2008) into boating accidents conducted by the Monash University Accident Research Centre. It clearly showed that errors in judgement, navigational errors, not keeping a proper lookout and other human factors were responsible for a large number of injuries and damage on the water. A United States Coast Guard analysis of navigational mishaps of its volunteer-operated craft revealed that 40 per cent of incidents were due to a loss of situational awareness.

While these statistics may relate to serious incidents, damage to hulls, propellers and minor collisions with piers and marina pens will spoil a day on the water, dent your confidence and maybe take your boat off the water for repairs.

Situational awareness is defined as the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to your boat with regards to the activity you are doing. In simple terms it’s knowing what is going on around you. Whether you’re cruising, taking part in towed watersports, riding a PWC or cruising to your favourite fishing location, good situational awareness will enhance your safety and enjoyment. A loss of situational awareness has obvious dangers, so it’s important to understand exactly what it is and how to develop good practices in relation to it.

Things to consider include: monitoring the density and location of other boat traffic; understanding what the weather is doing and how it will affect your activity; checking your navigational positioning, including dangers, water depth, navigation aids and voyage progress; reviewing the status of your fuel and engine(s) and, finally, in confined areas like marinas and boat ramps, continually checking your position and boat movement.

Operating on the water is a dynamic environment. Vessels can approach from all points and at varying speeds. Wind and waves affect the handling of your boat and can impact on fuel consumption and passenger comfort. Seabed profiles and underwater dangers dictate where you can and cannot go.


As the skipper, you have to take all of these things into consideration, process the information and make decisions about the safe operation of your boat. The information coming in allows you to build a picture of what is happening, which you should then compare with your mental picture of what you have planned, and you must have a plan.

For example, if you have decided to pass in front of another boat that is approaching, you should assess and re-assess the situation to verify what is actually happening. A mental picture will help confirm your plan.

If things are not going to plan then decisions to modify your plan need to be made. It all sounds like common sense, but you have to keep in mind that situational awareness is strongly linked to decision-making as it aids anticipation.

So what should you be looking for? When navigating from place to place, do not rely solely on electronic navigation. Have a checklist of things such as landmarks and navigation aids that can be used as a cross-check on safe progress.

In relation to other traffic, scan frequently, including behind you, and build a ‘mental map’ of other traffic that may intersect with you. I’ve often seen smaller boats in which the operator is concentrating solely on his GPS plotter, obviously following a track to a fishing mark and not looking outside the boat. Remember that at speed, situations develop quickly and there is less time for reaction. A higher level of awareness is required.

If you are sharing boat operation or involved in towed sports, communicate your intentions to others so everyone who needs to know can build their own picture of what is happening.

If you are not in charge, don’t be afraid to speak up if you see something happening that concerns you. It may be the final piece of information to assist the skipper in making a safe decision.


Congested areas and tight spots such as marinas can be daunting and dangerous. Be aware of how wind affects your boat and use it to advantage. Marinas often have difficult winds due to funnelling between buildings or marina rows. Watch the water. Ripples will tell you where stronger winds are blowing. Keep a good lookout all around and monitor closing rates on docks.

Losing situational awareness comes with some clues. Avoid ‘zoning in’ or fixating on one particular thing. The bigger picture can be easily lost. Confusing or ambiguous information, particularly about your position, is another concern. Having a number of small things going wrong is often a sign of deteriorating situational awareness.

There are some things that seriously affect situational awareness and can increase the chances of errors or incidents. Watch out for excessive motivation, which in boats is commonly called ‘get home-itis.’ This is where a decision is made to continue an activity despite your better judgement. If you have a gut feeling that it’s not the right thing to do, then it probably isn’t!

Complacency or over-familiarity is dangerous. Assuming everything is under control and going along nicely affects vigilance. Routine tasks can quickly turn nasty if not monitored.

Inattention or distractions can quickly confuse you about your situation. This is extremely important to monitor in confined waterways and when towing skiers or boarders.

Fatigue also affects awareness. I don’t just mean lack of sleep. A long day in the sun and on the water both contribute. Add to that the steady hum of the engines, a choppy sea and fatigue is not far away.

In summary, having good situational awareness allows you to respond faster to changing events – by knowing what is going on and, just as importantly, predicting how things will change. It involves the continual collection and evaluation of information.

It goes far beyond perception; it is about how you combine, interpret, store, retain and use all the information relative to your boating activity.

If in doubt – STOP. There is an old saying: “Don’t put your boat somewhere your mind hasn’t been two minutes beforehand.” Good situational awareness will mean that place is safe when you get there.

How to-Safety