I was reminded today of the importance of keeping a proper lookout at all times while sailing.
We had only been on the water for about 20 minutes and it was still well before the race start when we had a collision with another yacht that caused significant damage to both vessels.
Luckily no one onboard either yacht was injured beyond a few bruises, but that could easily have been a different story.
Seconds before the collision – in which our bow went through this side of another yacht – I was on the bow with my head down over the pulpit setting up some gear. I heard someone yelling frantically and looked up just in time to jump back towards the mast, avoiding what would otherwise most likely have been a pretty nasty injury. The whole piece of the yacht I had just been working on was completely ripped off, and I hate to think what would have happened if I had still been holding onto it when we collided. Considering the damage and possible outcomes, I feel very lucky to have come through with only a few bruises.
Accidents do happen, and at times are inevitable. However, this incident could likely have been avoided if at least one person on one of the yachts was keeping a better lookout.
During a start sequence and throughout a race most yachts have someone, if not multiple people assigned to keep a lookout. During a start sequence this is often the bow, headsail trimmer and tactician. Throughout the race it may primarily be the job of the tactician (or helms-person on smaller yachts), with help from the trimmers, especially the headsail trimmer on yachts with a big overlapping headsail.
It’s important to have someone specifically assigned to the task of looking for other boats and obstacles so they are actively looking out and around. However, all members of the crew should help keep a lookout and alert the skipper or tactician to a possible problem. (Knowing what constitutes a problem and how to communicate this effectively is a skill in itself – too much information is not necessarily helpful. If there are relatively inexperienced crew members onboard or communication is a challenge on your yacht, this is something you might want to cover in a pre-race briefing).
Getting your yacht’s lookout process sorted for race time is great, but as we were starkly reminded today, keeping a proper lookout is just as important at all times while on the water.
Next time I’m out on the water I will certainly be looking up and out on a regular basis, and still thanking my lucky stars that no one was hurt, this time.