Look Out! Huh?

situationalawarenessWhy “Situational Awareness” is a big deal when operating a boat, and is a skill (and a mindset) that can be developed.

What are you paying attention to when you are operating your boat? Not just what are you looking at, but what information are you processing when making decisions while boating? Are you focused on your wake to see if you can shape it just right for the rider, are you focused on your passengers to make sure they are having a good time, or perhaps you are checking out that cool personal watercraft that is jumping your wake?

Unfortunately this year, Oregon experienced far too many collisions as a result of operators paying attention to exactly those things, and not to what is in front or to the side of their boat. This past year saw an 8.8% increase in fatalities caused by distracted drivers on our nations roadways, and unfortunately we are seeing similar (if not greater) increases on our waterways, too. While the reasons for distracted driving on the road may be different than on the water, the results tend to be the same.

The biggest factor in preventing boating accidents is human awareness, understanding the environment where you’re boating and the critical decisions that are made.


PayAttentionYou watch the road, stay in the lines, check your rear-view mirror and side mirrors routinely.  Why is a boat (propelled by paddle or motor) any different?  Sure, there aren’t any lines to follow, and in many cases, there aren’t rear-view mirrors installed, but there are environmental factors to always be aware of.  What direction is the wind coming from?  What is the condition of the tide -coming in or going out?  What is the depth and contour of the waterway?  Where is the sun’s position?  Where is my bow in proximity to an oncoming wake?

SAScaleHaving the right MINDSET, is a tangible skill but it’s something you need to prime your mind for.  Develop your perception, comprehension and projection, defined in the context of situational awareness:

  • Perception -of cues and stimulus from the environment
  • Comprehension -involving the integration of information to facilitate relevance determination and sense-making
  • Projection -the ability to forecast future situation events and dynamics

Reference: Toward a Theory of Situation Awareness in Dynamic Systems; Mica R. Endsley, Texas Tech University

To develop the right mindset, first recognize that threats do exist.  Rivers are inherently dangerous.  The salt water environment is treacherous.  Lakes and reservoirs are not static.  Many boaters are complacent about potential threats, like cold water.  They aren’t expecting to get wet, so when a boater sets their anchor incorrectly and gets swamped -then what?  (Insert tragic headline here…) Most involve not wearing a life jacket.

Boat operators also need to take on the mindset that everyone’s security is their responsibility.  Everyone on board needs to have a properly fitting life jacket, know what to do if someone falls overboard, and have a plan on how to dock, launch and retrieve -as a team.   Ultimately, the law says that the boat operator will be held liable if anyone is injured in an accident or if another person’s property is damaged (or your own).  Not a good way to keep friends or spend your hard-earned money.

The situational awareness mindset also includes trusting your instincts.  Be mindful of your subconscious and the subtle signs of danger causing those goose bumps.  Have you ever had a feeling that something bad is going to happen without putting your finger on it -and then it happens?  Don’t ignore these feelings.  Act on them. 

Here are a few life-drills to help prime your mind:

  • At a boat ramp, how many people are launching?  What are they wearing?
  • Is there a staging area?
  • How many car slips and trailered parking spots are there?
  • What are the weather conditions?
  • Which direction is the wind coming from?
  • Where is the signage kiosk and how many signs are on it?
SUP enthusiasts must operate with "defensive" paddling, proper gear, and know your limits.

SUP enthusiasts must operate with “defensive” paddling, proper gear, and know their physical limits.

Engaging in such simple situational awareness drills will help train your mind to be aware of things around you, almost subconsciously, when you’re in a relaxed state of awareness.  These details matter.  Like anything, the more you do it, the easier it gets.

Bottom line:  Situational Awareness = Being present in the moment and taking action when needed.  You’ll also receive an added bonus of taking in more of the wonderful scenery, tranquility, and environmental sensations that help you connect… with nature -and yourself. 

Detroit Lake Boating




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