By: Bill Jennings
Aircraft crash investigations focus on primarily two possible causes:mechanical failure and pilot error. When it comes to on-the-water accidents, statistics reveal that it is almost always driver error that is the culprit. Further examination of the errors that drivers commit reveals a surprising statistic. The top three contributing factors causing injury or death on the water are operator inattention, operator inexperience and ineffective lookout. It is hard to imagine that after all the effort you made, learning to be a good boat driver, one of the most important driving skills is simply paying attention.
Staying on top of what is going on ahead of your boat is not as easy as it sounds. A lake is not a highway. Boats can approach from many directions and your eyes do not quickly provide the optimum focal length to visualize the motion and direction of area traffic.
To reduce concerns with visibility, here is a suggestion. Before leaving the dock, ask whoever plans to sit forward to be your “spotter." Explain that you would appreciate their help to keep track of boats around you by calling out their position using clock-face positioning. For example, “Boat at your 10 o’clock," tells you there is traffic ahead and slightly to your left. Always acknowledge with a “Thank you," even if you had already seen the traffic. Assigning this task to a passenger on every boating outing not only adds to safety, but makes your spotter feel like an integral part of the trip.
Because our peripheral vision is much less detailed than what we see in front of our nose, the best way to look for obstacles and traffic is to focus your eyes on specific segments, moving your focus 10 degrees at a time from straight ahead to the left and then from straight ahead to your right. Do not just sweep your eyes from left to right. If you are boating in a busy area, take the time to explain this scanning procedure to your spotter.
I predict that an instrument currently available for ships and yachts will one day be affordable for small boats. This instrument is an automatic dependent surveillance broadcast, using satellites to provide on a monitor, situational awareness of boats in your vicinity. The boater can then initiate self-separation.
Drivers, of course, must know the regulations for ‘give-way’ and ‘stand-on’ vessels in a variety of interactions, but spotting them is the first step. No GPS or radar screen can compare to a second pair of eyes continuously scanning the surface of the water ahead, for obstacles and other boats. Assigning a lookout when boating is a surprisingly simple way to increase safety and provide cheap insurance that you and your passengers will have another great day of boating.