Situational awareness

Too many boats are grounding, colliding or coming into close quarters with each other simply because masters are unaware of what is happening within and around their boats. In other words, they lacked situational awareness.

Situational awareness means:

  • having a good perception of your surroundings at all times
  • comprehending what's happening around you
  • predicting how this will affect your boat.

The following are what you need to know to have good situational awareness:

  • Be aware of your environment, including:
    • other boats in the area
    • communications between vessel traffic services and other boats
    • weather
    • sea state
    • depth of water
    • tide and current
  • Having mode awareness—know your boat's configuration, equipment and systems. These systems include auto pilot, radar, GPS, AIS, compass, propulsion and their engaged modes. Be aware of the status of your boat's systems.
  • Keep spatial orientation—know the geographical position of the boat within the operational location.
  • Keep a time horizon—manage time for things like fuel status and always allow time for unplanned events or emergencies.

Put simply, situational awareness means having an accurate understanding of what is happening around you and what is likely to happen.

You must:

  1. Perceive what is happening.
  2. Understand what is happening.
  3. Use this to think ahead.

Level 1: Perception—use your senses

Build a mental picture of your environment, using vision, hearing and touch to scan the environment.

Then direct your attention to the most important and relevant aspects of your surroundings and compare this experience with knowledge built up in your memory.

It sounds simple but it is a process that requires discipline, as well as knowing what to look for, when to look for it and why.

For example, gather passage plan data, including safe navigational tracks, available depths of water, weather, sea state, current and tides, fuel reserves, speed.

Level 2: Understand—create a mental picture

Understanding is a combination of real world observations, knowledge and experience.

By matching observations with knowledge and experience you develop an accurate mental picture of your environment.

Keep the mental picture up-to-date with inputs from the wide range of real world information available to you.

For example, understanding voyage plan data, including deviation from the plan, safety/legal requirements, boat capability and operational requirements, fuel reserves, course deviations and speed deviations.

Level 3: Thinking ahead—projection

Understanding allows you to think ahead and project into the future environment. This step is crucial in the master's decision making process and requires that your understanding, based on gathered data, is as accurate as possible.

It simply is 'sailing ahead of the ship'.

For example, projected voyage plan data including sailing time, estimated time of departure, deviation, fuel usage, refuelling stops, estimated time of arrival.

Losing situational awareness

Many factors can cause you to lose situational awareness. Errors can occur at each level of the process previously described.

Level 1: Perception

Data not observed, either because it is difficult to observe or your scanning of the environment is deficient due to:

  • passive, complacent behaviour
  • high work load
  • distraction and interruptions including:
    • not relevant to task, for example, a person talking
    • relevant to task, for example, a warning light starts to flash.

    Note: How you deal with these matters is important, for example, you could slow the boat down so that you are able to address the situation at hand, stopping the situation from developing so quickly.

  • Unexpected, for example, reacting to a boats movement ahead of you and forgetting about those boats overtaking.
  • Visual illusions.

Level 2: Understanding

  • Use of poor or incomplete mental picture due to:
    • deficient observations (level 1 problem)
    • poor knowledge/experience.
  • Use of a wrong or inappropriate mental picture.
  • Misunderstanding perceived information: expecting to see something and focusing on this belief can cause you to see what you expect rather than what is actually happening.

For example, applying an internal fuel transfer procedure without realising that there is a fuel leak in the engine room.

Level 3: Thinking ahead

Over reliance on the mental picture and failing to recognise that the mental picture needs to change.

For example, expecting to berth the boat in a particular way without realising that the surrounding environment may have changed since departure.

Recovering situational awareness

  • Seek the nearest stable, simple and safe method:
    • Follow rules and standard operating procedures.
    • Change from automations to manual.
    • Buy time by slowing down and/or altering course.
  • Communicate—ask for help.
  • Recover the big picture:
    • Go back to the last thing that you were sure of.
    • Assess the situation from different perspective with different sources.
    • Expand your focus to avoid fixation.
    • Manage stress and distractions.
    • Take time to think, use that time and be willing to be delayed.
    • Follow rules and standard operating procedures.

First be right—then go forward.

Further information

For further information contact your local Maritime Safety Queensland office:

Maritime Safety Queensland office Phone
Airlie Beach (07) 4841 4500
Bundaberg (07) 4132 6600
Cairns (07) 4052 7400
Gladstone (07) 4971 5200
Hervey Bay (07) 4194 9600
Mackay (07) 4944 3700
Mooloolaba (07) 5373 2310
Brisbane (07) 3632 7500
Gold Coast (07) 5585 1810
Townsville (07) 4421 8100

View other marine information bulletins about the safe operation of boats.

Last updated
06 January 2023