Thursday, July 28, 2016


When I was learning how to fly, the one concept that my flight instructor impressed on me, probably more than any other, was situational awareness. Wikipedia has a pretty interesting definition of it:

Situational awareness or situation awareness (SA) is the perception of environmental elements with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status after some variable has changed, such as time, or some other variable, such as a predetermined event.

In flying, the concept is applied regarding the temptation to fixate on a single point. When you're landing, you tend to get fixated on the numbers at the end of the runway instead of keeping the entire runway environment in your field of concentration, making it possible to literally not see a plane you're about to crash into. When you're in the air, it's easy to fixate on the instruments, ignoring the approaching weather or traffic. To be situationally aware is to stay alive.

Situational awareness is one of those acquired skills that transferred well to sailing. When you're sailing, it's easy to fixate on the interior of the cockpit - the instruments, the sail trim, the tangle of sheets, the conversations on the radio. Fixating on this small area can lead you to interfere dangerously in traffic flow or, like flying, to miss the signs of approaching weather. It can also lead you to miss a sign that something is wrong.

The cutter rig down stay with the broken strand
Not too long after we got to Snead Island Boat Works, I was in the chain locker at the foot of the V-berth doing a little research on an upcoming project. It's pretty dark in the chain locker so I was using  my flashlight. I was aiming the light toward the forward most part of the bow, but in the process something just caught the edge of my peripheral vision. A small thing, a tiny strand of the wire in the cutter rig downstay had worked loose. Not a huge issue, but the downstay needed replaced and the consequences of missing it would have been highly unpleasant.

On a boat, especially a sailboat, situational awareness is paramount. Always being aware of the condition of the rig, ever looking for weak points in the sail stitching, checking for missing cotter keys, looking for the first signs of approaching weather, listening for irregularities in sounds, all play into your safety and, as a result, your enjoyment of the lifestyle. While we have scheduled inspections on Kintala (Tim walks the deck before every sail - preflight, if you will), it's that constant situational awareness that will catch most things before they become big things.

Situational awareness is a learned skill, a practiced art. It involves relaxing, because the more tense you are the less situationally aware you are. It involves not being preoccupied with meaningless chatter like your Facebook feed. If you're thinking about something else, that missing nut won't catch your attention. So the next time you have that niggling feeling that you missed something, you probably did. Retrace your steps and try to figure it out. You just might save yourself a disaster later.

1 comment:

Robert Salnick said...

Excellent write up of an important issue.