Recreational Boating Safety – The Lookout

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
We all know from watching those Errol Flynn pirate movies that the most important person on the ship while underway is the lookout. That’s not a paid position. No one signed on board a ship as “lookout.” Rather, it was an assigned duty. Due to the curvature of the earth, the lookout was always the first to see land, an enemy ship, or Moby Dick or his relatives. The higher the crow’s nest, the farther the lookout could see except when the sea was obscured by fog or rain or dark of night.

The Barrelman: Evolution of the Lookout
The first vessels to cross large bodies of water were dugout canoes propelled by paddles. Those dugouts were improved by the addition of a sail on a mast. Bigger and bigger ships were built, and the larger ships had tall masts. Once sailors reported on how much farther they could see from the tops of those masts, ship outfitters began lashing an open barrel to the top of the mast. A member of the crew experienced in the matter of navigation and also equipped with good vision would occupy the barrel. The barrelman title was given to those brave souls, and the importance of the position was such that the barrel was always manned when underway. The duties of the barrelman included detecting and reporting on ships, shipwrecks, debris, shipwrecked persons, and navigational hazards. If you were crewman on a whaler, your job as barrelman was looking for the telltale whale spouts. If you were crew on a man o’ war, you were looking out for enemy ships.

Lookout Tools of the Trade
A person’s eyes and ears were and still are the most important tools of the lookout. What are the lookouts listening for? Why, bells, whistles, and horns! They are still important (and required) safety devices on modern ships, as any of us who live on or near the shipping lanes and channels can tell you. We have had a few inventions over the centuries that have enhanced the ability of the lookout to detect danger. The spyglass was the first invention. A spyglass is a portable telescope used to find land, lookout for enemy ships, or look to the stars for celestial navigation. Spyglasses evolved into binoculars in the late 1800s. The first binocular was not handheld and was simply two telescopes side by side and close together enough to be used by one person looking through both telescopes simultaneously. Now there are prism based and electronically stabilized binoculars. I highly recommend that you keep a set of binoculars on your boat.

New Terms for the Lookout
The modern lookout is assigned to watches- forward watch, stern watch, port watch, starboard watch, and even radar watch. Those of us who are assigned a watch usually are no longer looking out for enemy ships or whales, but we are still looking out for other vessels, shoaling, fixed obstructions such as jetties and docks, and for sub merged objects just below the waterline that can damage or sink your boat. Rule 5 of the Rules of the Road, below, primarily directs the lookout to be observant for any risks of collision:

Rules of the Road Rule 5: Post a Lookout
You must designate someone to watch for dangers that may come from any direction. You must 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.

If a lookout sees something that could endanger their vessel, they need to point toward the danger and loudly inform the boat operator, and continue to do so until acknowledged.

All Available Means
The all available means clause of Rule 5 applies to electronic means such as your GPS, AIS (Automatic Identification System, found in commercial vessels mostly, but becoming popular for ocean-going vessels), infrared and radar systems. The rule is simply if the system is working you must use it to aid in avoiding a collision at sea.

The lookout is the only position on a vessel that is actually required by law. The boat operator should assign the lookout positions according to the conditions at the time and make sure each lookout understands what they are to do.

[BC: May-23-2023]

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