The human factor

Doug King | VOLUME 31, ISSUE 6
Ten separate human factors have been identified as areas that affect performance
Threats to boating safety come in many guises, with human factors possibly the greatest culprits.

It’s often said ‘human factors’ contribute to many incidents, but what are human factors and how do they impact on your boating?

Often referred to as ‘safety behaviours’, human factors are established disciplines used to understand how people perform under different circumstances. Knowledge of human factors can be used to reduce the likelihood of errors leading to incidents, and build more error-tolerant and resilient practices to enhance safety.

Ten separate human factors have been identified as areas that affect performance, with failures in one or more of them potentially leading to serious trouble. These are: fatigue and stress, communication, teamwork, leadership, situational awareness, decision making, threat and error management, seamanship, alcohol and drugs, and safety reporting.

While we’ll deal with these in separate chapters, each interacts with, or influences the others. Some are controlled by laws – for example, alcohol and drug use is regulated, for obvious reasons. Safety reporting when incidents occur is enforced by law, primarily to allow wider learning from those incidents.


Fatigue and stress are subtle and menacing. Long days on the water fishing, sailing or engaged in towsports contribute to fatigue with little warning – fatigue accumulates quietly, leading to lapses in concentration, ‘zoning out’, poor decision making, and loss of situational awareness.

Stress from noise, vibration, choppy seas and hot sun or a cold environment is a very real issue … and you don’t need this stress at the end of a long day when returning to the ramp or marina.

Another stressor is not leaving enough time to make decisions or undertake tasks. For example, approaching the berth too quickly, encountering unexpected situations or putting time pressure on yourself all lead to stress.

In industrial environments, sophisticated fatigue management systems are employed. Recreational boaters can manage fatigue and stress by getting sufficient timely rest and reducing time on the water. Stressors can be lessened by planning ahead, taking things slowly in busy or confined areas, and allowing plenty of time to undertake activities.


Investigations and coroner inquiries can reveal many issues, and their findings can help reduce the likelihood of further accidents, as can the information supplied in safety reports submitted by skippers.

Some 10 years ago, a collision costing four lives occurred between two boats on Sydney Harbour when an unlit boat was struck by a commercial ferry. While a number of factors contributed to the boat not showing lights, Coroner Hugh Dillon made 28 findings – one, in particular, related to safety reporting. Dillon found that: “It was probable that two commercial operators (at least) saw the unlit boat as it made its way to the point of collision, but neither reported their sightings.”

No blame for not reporting the unlit boat was implied, it was just the ways things were at the time. Things may have been different if the unlit boat had been reported to authorities and other vessels alerted to the danger, or the vessel intercepted. The message here is don’t be afraid to speak up if you see something that is unsafe.


On first glance, decision making, leadership and teamwork appear a little academic for an activity where enjoyment and fun is the primary focus. Like it or not, though, they are vital parts of your day on the water and the decisions you make will affect your and your passenger’s safety.

Some years ago, I was in a search team that walked part of Ninety Mile Beach, near the Lakes Entrance Bar. We were looking for any trace of a father and two young sons from a small boat that had rolled on the bar. They had been on holidays at the resort. Sadly, it turned out that they had all perished.

On the day, the bar was nasty. Even professional fishermen stayed home and I still wonder how the father arrived at the decision to attempt a bar crossing and head out for a fishing trip, when it was so obviously dangerous and great fishing was available in the sheltered lake system he had just left.

When making decisions, carefully consider all options and understand possible consequences. Follow a process to be sure you have made the best decision possible under the circumstances. Use your experience – good decisions rely on experience and skill, and your ability to draw on those areas when considering what to do. In most circumstances, knowledge, rules and skills should provide a number of options for you to consider.

Involve others when appropriate. If you don’t have the experience, this should raise alarm bells with you – seek advice and learn from what you see and hear.

After selecting the most suitable and safe option, develop a plan. Implement it and monitor progress to make sure what you wanted to do is actually happening.

You may need to modify what you are doing – if you do, go back to the start of the decision-making process before implementing the modification.

Some barriers to good decision-making include fatigue and stress from putting yourself under time pressure. Rushing things can mean that you may not take all the facts into account. A fresh mind and sufficient time will help with making good decisions.

Making assumptions, being complacent, not communicating with or involving others if there is time to do so, will affect good decision-making and ultimately lead to problems.

A final point about good decision-making is to take time to review and reflect on how things went and whether the options and actions you decided on worked well and were safe.


On a boat, leadership is all about taking responsibility for the safety of the vessel and passengers. Setting good examples, such as briefing your passengers on safety and behaviour while aboard, is important. Insisting non-swimmers wear PFDs and taking firm control when needed are examples of good onboard leadership skills. Decision-making also plays a large part in leadership.

Working as a team makes things easier and more enjoyable. On the boat, involve others by allocating tasks to those able to do them and consult when appropriate.

I have just returned from a few days cruising on Sydney’s Pittwater and Hawkesbury River system. I was the guest of a very experienced sailor who involved everyone in the cruising activities. This not only took advantage of other’s experience and skills, everyone aboard contributed and was involved in making the trip a success.

In a broader sense, your marine mechanic, the Volunteer Marine Service that you log on and off with, and the friend or relative that you let know where you are going and when you will be back should be considered as team members.


In a past chapter of Waterwise, I wrote about situational awareness. In simple terms, situational awareness is about paying attention to your surroundings, maintaining the big picture and thinking ahead. This will allow you to respond to changing situations and predict how things might change.

In 2007, a group of friends left Brisbane River to fish on Moreton Bay. They returned at night and collided at speed with an unlit rock wall that was part of a port reclamation project.

It was a moonless night and significant backlight was emanating from the Port of Brisbane. The boat’s chartplotter map was out of date and did not show the rock wall. And to compound matters, the plotter was in ‘highway’ mode to set a path, which did not show hazards or navigation marks. The skipper did not refer to other charts and did not use the chartplotter to set a waypoint on the outward journey to return to the mouth of the Brisbane River in the dark. Instead, he selected a point in the mouth of the river which he believed was clear of the rock wall.

With highway mode activated, the skipper set out for his home marina in Brisbane River at around 20 knots. He switched between highway mode and the (outdated) chart, but was unsure of the scale selected. He kept a lookout but also relied on the plotter to return safety to the river entrance. The skipper saw some navigation marks, but did not know what the light sequence indicated and passed to the incorrect side, striking the rock wall shortly afterwards. All occupants were injured and one died later in hospital.

This tragedy illustrates how breakdowns in situational awareness do not necessarily rely on one thing – many factors contributed to the final collision with the rock wall: inexperience, a dark night, speed, lack of understanding of the buoyage system, and out of date charts on the plotter.

A number of small problems had mounted and compounded into a larger incident. This is called the Swiss Cheese Model, also known as the cumulative act effect, an accepted theory by American human-error expert Professor James Reason. The model is likened to the holes in a number of layers of Swiss cheese aligning, allowing risks to pass through.

The following points will help with situational awareness:

• Plan what you’re going to do and continually monitor your plan to ensure it’s unfolding as you want

• Know your boat and how all equipment functions

• Include the boat and instruments in a regular watch-keeping scan

• Learn to scan for other vessels effectively (horizon to boat in 30-degree increments)

• Operate within your limits

• Understand how weather and forecasts will affect the water you operate on

• Brief your crew on what you have planned and ask them to follow progress

• Be open to their suggestions and encourage them to speak up if they think things are going off track

• Always travel at a speed that’s safe for the conditions

• Recognise the symptoms of the Swiss Cheese Model.


When I first started boating, a wise old salt gave me an excellent piece of advice: doubt equals danger. When you have any doubt or concerns, and if it is safe to do so, slow down or stop and assess the problem.

The ability to recognise threats is another important factor. If you are oblivious to risks, something will almost certainly go wrong. Most authorities have written into their marine laws a requirement for skippers to reasonably reduce risks. But if you don’t know the risks, how can you reduce them?

A lot about boating is common sense, but there are some areas where specific knowledge is essential. Weather, dealing with breakdowns, understanding navigation techniques and using safety equipment are standouts.

Take time to look at the hazards you may face and what the consequences would be if they were to occur. Then look at what you can do to manage those risks. For example: onboard fire is a risk. To minimise this risk, conduct regular servicing and pre-departure checks of the engine and fuel system, and follow safe refuelling practices.

I always emphasise that preparation, planning and risk assessment must be part of the process. You should be in a position to recognise risk and have strategies in place to manage and reduce risk, and also have the ability to deal with things if they do go wrong.

Do you know how flares work and when to use which ones (orange smoke or red handheld)? What is the fire triangle and how does your fire extinguisher work? What would you do if your hull were damaged and taking water? If your boat did get swamped, how do you summon assistance? What can you do to increase survival time if immersed in water?

I don’t mean to be pessimistic, but boating can be lot less forgiving than motoring if things do go wrong and you may not get a second chance.

• To maximise safety management, develop some checklists, or use the Club Marine App’s checklist section.

• Learn how your safety equipment works and when to use it. Remember the old saying ‘least used, most needed’.

• Have your boat and trailer serviced regularly and learn basic troubleshooting skills for minor mechanical issues.

• Plan your voyage, brief your crew, calculate fuel consumption and maintain situational awareness by a number of means – don’t rely on just the GPS or chartplotter.


Another component of human factor is seamanship. You most likely know someone who you believe has great seamanship … it’s that intangible ‘something’ that separates superior skippers from the average boatie.

Seamanship – a single word encompasses many things. Good seamanship requires discipline, knowledge and expertise, judgment, situational awareness, teamwork, good decision-making, and communication and planning skills. Three main guiding principles are proficiency, skill and discipline. Confidence based on experience and the continual desire to learn and improve are hallmarks of good seamanship.

To develop good seamanship, know your limitations and work within them. Develop a thorough knowledge of your boat and its systems. Continually keep yourself updated and practise new skills. Develop high levels of situational awareness and don’t be in a rush on the water. Listen to those with experience and learn from others who display good seamanship.

When it comes to operating a boat, there is an ever-present risk. Like on the road, regulations are designed to reduce risks and make operations safer. Human factors feature highly as contributors to boating incidents and it is the human performance element that can significantly impact the likelihood of a boater becoming a statistic. The attitude and approach of skippers can either increase or decrease risks.

An understanding of human factors and how they can be managed to contribute to safe operation on the water will not only enhance your safety, it will make your boating more enjoyable for you, your family and friends, and other boaters.

How to-Safety