How to keep a proper lookout

10th December 2021 Elena Manighetti

How to keep a proper lookout

Most boat crashes can be avoided by staying focused on driving or sailing and keeping a close eye on your surroundings. So keeping a proper lookout is fundamental to staying safe on the water. It’s not difficult; it just requires your full attention. 

What’s a proper lookout

First, let’s discuss what a proper lookout is. In short, it’s a vigilant lookout performed by a knowledgeable boater. The person needs to look all around the boat, including behind them and the horizon, and listen out for any noise. 

Below are the things you’ll need to watch out for when you scan the area around you.

Other vessels

You’ll want to spot other vessels, including seaplanes, as soon as they come into view. The sooner you notice them, the more time you will have to take action, should you need to. Take special care at bends in channels and rivers, where your view is restricted.

Bear in mind that big ships move much faster than they seem to, and they often anchor out in open water. Learn to take transits, so you can figure out if and in what direction a vessel is moving.

In order to know what to do in a potential collision situation, you’ll need to know the COLREGs. The rules of the road are different on the sea; it’s easy to do the wrong thing if you don’t understand them. 

When it comes to small, engineless craft, you’ll have to avoid them and pass as far away as possible to minimise the wake they will experience.

At night, you’ll have to be able to recognise the navigation lights of other vessels. Don’t go out after sunset if you don’t know what different nav lights mean.

People

You may spot people in the water when you least expect it. Open water swimmers, divers, spearfishers, and snorkellers can be found a long distance from shore. As soon as you see flags, floats, or buoys, change direction. 

By a beach or in a bay, swimmers don’t always display a flag, especially if they are swimming off their boat. You will need to be extra careful here.

It’s your duty to maintain a safe distance from people. Pass as far as you can. If you come near any swimmers by mistake, put the engine in neutral - a spinning propeller can cause serious injuries or death.

Submerged and floating objects

Out on the water, you may encounter unmarked submerged hazards, such as lobster pots and sunken vessels, and floating objects, such as logs and debris. These won’t appear on your chart plotter or AIS, so it’s crucial that you keep a sharp lookout. 

In a mooring area, watch out for mooring lines. These can get stuck in your propeller and stop the boat.

ATONs

Aids To Navigation (ATONs) are signs, symbols, buoys, and markers that help you navigate. They indicate isolated dangers or show a safe route. When on watch, keep an eye on the water for ATONs. They will help you avoid running aground, as long as you can interpret them.

Structures

In some areas, you will also need to look out for any man-made structures, such as bridges, overhead powerlines, and jetties. When approaching a bridge, you need to be able to read the signs stating the clearance height. These generally indicate the maximum clearance height at the mean high-water mark. 

Animals

Marine wildlife, such as whales, seals, sea turtles, and dolphins, can pass by your boat at any time. The animals may not have time to move if you drive very fast. For this reason, you’ll have to carefully observe the water while you boat. 

Extra tips for keeping a proper lookout

It’s better to have a dedicated person on board on lookout duty, so they can focus fully on the task. The skipper may have restricted visibility, so extra crew can really help. 

Use all the instruments you own that can help you identify objects and vessels on the water or onshore. For this purpose, you can use:

  • AIS

  • Radar

  • Charts and chart plotters.

Don’t wear earphones or play loud music while on lookout duty to hear all sounds. Also, bear in mind that visibility can heavily limit how far you can see. You will have reduced visibility in fog, at night, when it rains or snows, … In these conditions, you should try to keep an even sharper lookout. In heavy fog, you’ll need to rely a lot on your hearing to listen for the drone of the engine or the horn signal coming from other boats. You will also have to use a horn to make yourself heard.

In case you are towing a water skier, you’ll need crew to keep an eye on the skier at all times. Driving and looking behind you often is too dangerous.

Keeping a proper lookout will give you useful information to make important decisions, such as changing course or slowing down. We hope these tips help you keep a proper lookout out on the water. Our mission is to make boating safe for everyone. Safety should be 100% free.


Download the Deckee app from the App Store or Google Play for free. On the map, you will be able to view and inspect points of interest (POI), such as Aids to Navigation and mooring fields. This can help you understand what you are able to see in the distance with your eyes. Simply click on the POI to find out what it is.

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