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Situational Awareness

Don’t let modern technology rob you of your common sense.
Capt. at helm

Keep your eyes on the horizon, as well as your MFDs.

Advancements in technology have forever changed the way we boat—from automation at our helms to boating apps in our smartphones and tablets. Recent studies, however, are finding that instead of increasing our safety and enjoyment, these technologies are negatively impacting our time on the water in myriad ways, and subtly affecting our behavior at the helm.

A study at Cornell University found people navigating by GPS become more immersed in the virtual-technological environment than the physical environment around them. There are numerous instances of boaters running aground while following a route in the GPS, and people driving their cars right off the ferry terminal pier while following the directions in the auto’s GPS.

When faithfully following a device’s directions, we tend to fall into tunnel vision, losing our awareness of what is happening around us. Technology has become so good at communicating with us, it is lulling us into a belief that we don’t have to pay close attention to our surroundings. As a result, we’re losing, or giving up, what is referred to as situational awareness.

Situational awareness, a familiar term to professional captains and crew, is defined as having a keen sense of the events and conditions around us, and the ability to apply our awareness of those events to our situation. Simply put, it’s knowing what is going on around you.

There is good evidence the increasing number of devices supplying information at the helm is making us less observant and more distracted. Look no further than the recent and tragic collisions involving Naval vessels USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain. According to the Navy’s Admiral William F. Moran, vice chief of naval operations, in the case of the USS Fitzgerald, “the sailors who were on watch in the ship’s bridge lost situational awareness, contributing to the collision.”

Helm with multi-function displays

How many screens are vying for your attention?

Two situations recently caused me to think about how recreational boaters interact with the technology at the helm and how it can affect our situational awareness.

Whenever I am in unfamiliar waters, I call a towboat operator in the area for local knowledge. On one call I made, the towboat captain gave the following instructions: “When you get to red marker number two, put a course line in your GPS straight to the RS junction marker. It’s about two miles in. Just follow that route on your GPS and it will keep you in safe water all the way.”

A few days later, when calling for local knowledge at another unfamiliar location, the towboat captain told me: “When you enter the river, as soon as you’re even with the Coast Guard station on your port side, look ahead and you will see a water tower and a church steeple.” He added that we should center the steeple under the water tower and hold that course until we came even with green marker 11, then look to our port side to find the entrance channel to the marina.

Both were good instructions that safely brought us to our destinations. The big difference, of course, was that one operator had us focused on a GPS screen, while the other had us looking out the pilothouse windows.

We are so focused on the information from our devices, we lose sight of our surroundings. There is a valuable place at our helms for much of the technology available to us, but our eyes and ears are still the most valuable tools we have.

That which we practice we perfect. Gather information from your devices and instruments, but also practice continually observing your surroundings. Information that’s important to monitor includes course, depth, traffic, weather, sea conditions, and vessel data.

Engage your crew to assist as lookouts, since situational awareness is a collective activity for all on board. You can also utilize local knowledge and crowd-sourced information from boaters traveling ahead of you, whenever it’s available. Apply this information to predict the future. Or, as some old salts say, “Make sure you’re sailing ahead of the ship.”

Good seamanship is balancing the technology at your helm with an awareness of the world around you.

This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.