What Is Involved In Maintaining A Proper Lookout?

Maintaining a proper lookout by sight and hearing as a crew on a vessel is a critically important safety function.

Lookouts should be able to spot a potentially dangerous situation and respond efficiently, preventing it from escalating.

Rule 5 states: Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper lookout by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision. COLREGS

1️⃣ All US-registered vessels shall maintain a proper lookout by sight and hearing to ensure safety in prevailing circumstances and conditions.

2️⃣ It is a good safety practice to maintain a lookout and may result in the vessel avoiding or reducing the effects of an emergency situation.

3️⃣ A lookout must never leave the post until formally relieved.

4️⃣ Maintain a structured scan and remain attentive.

🔎 Responsibilities Of The Person Keeping A Lookout

The reasons for keeping a proper lookout are discussed below. This discussion is for tailored for American waters.

Keeping A Proper Lookout Is The Law

Maintaining a strict watch program and maintaining a lookout are required as determined by the Code of Federal Regulations, titles 33 (Navigation and Navigable Waters) and 46 (Shipping) of the Code f Federal Regulations (CFR).

The regulations state the following (paraphrased):

Title 46 – Vessel Operational Safety

Title 46 contains the following regulations regarding maintaining proper lookouts:

1️⃣ It is the captain’s function to decide when a lookout must be kept.

2️⃣ A vigilant state must be maintained.

3️⃣ All situations must be assessed, and the risk of collision evaluated.

4️⃣ Any other navigation hazards must be detected and anticipated, including the risk of stranding.

5️⃣ When evaluating the risks facing a  boat, the lookout must watch the weather and visibility conditions, how many other vessels are around, and how close the vessels are to navigation hazards.

Title 33 Part 83.05 – Navigation Rules – Lookout (Rule 5)  

Title 33 contains the following regulations regarding maintaining proper lookouts:

To prevent collisions, every boat must maintain a correct lookout using the following means:

  • Sound
  • Sight
  • All other means at their disposal

Keeping A Lookout Is Essential From A Safety Perspective

Irrespective of any regulatory requirements, it makes sense always to keep a lookout. 

  •  Irrespective of the right-of-way rules that all vessels should observe, there are many times when these are not followed, endangering the safety of boaters.
  • The lookout will hopefully see navigation hazards in time to avoid a collision.
  • The lookout will keep an eye on the ship’s condition and quickly be able to spot something going wrong before it becomes serious.

The Roles And Responsibilities Of The Lookout

How well do you know the Rules of the Road?

A lookout is a crew member that is detailed to observe everything, either in an assigned sector – large boats or a 360o view around the boat.

The lookout often determines the safety and overall running efficiency of the ship.

In large ships, three 3 lookouts are appointed:

  • Front and port (left).
  • Front and starboard (right).
  • Stern port and starboard.

The aft lookout is responsible for checking the stern side of the boat and throwing a lifebuoy if someone goes overboard. 

On smaller ships, one lookout is sufficient, whose responsibilities are as follows:

Ensure safe distances between ships, maintaining a vigilant lookout for traffic (seamanship, traffic density, maintaining a proper lookout).

Navigate in accordance with rules, considering prevailing conditions and traffic density (navigational, traffic density, prevailing circumstances). Today, “all available means” include, but are not limited to, radar, AIS, an automatic radar plotting aid, ships traffic services, VHF radio, and good old reliable binoculars.

Identify and assess navigation hazards, utilizing available means (radar, available means) to maintain situational awareness (full appraisal of the situation, risk assessment).

Watch for shipwrecks, stranded individuals, and debris (shipwrecks, debris) to navigate safely and prevent potential risks (watch for hazards, safety precautions).

Prioritize the safety of occupants, ensuring their well-being during recreational activities (occupant safety, recreational boating).

Stay alert for piracy threats in high-risk waters (piracy risk, high-risk waters) and take appropriate precautions.

Maintain the lookout post until formally relieved, adhering to good seamanship practices at all times (seamanship, maintain a lookout, formal relief).

Adapt maneuvers and actions according to the prevailing circumstances to mitigate risks (maneuver, prevailing circumstances, risk mitigation).

🏆 Best Practices For Keeping A Lookout

Keep a powerful pair of binoculars on hand, ensuring you have the means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances (blue1), and use them as necessary.

The best size of binoculars for marine use work is 7 x 50 (glasses have a magnification of 7 power and lens that are 50 mm in diameter.

Wear sunglasses to enhance sight in bright conditions, making use of available means appropriate.

In bad weather, dress in foul-weather gear.

The scan should start at the ship and move outwards to the horizon.

Move from left (port) to starboard, maintaining the same surface scan.

Maintain a constant scan with your eyes quickly moving from object to object.

Remain alert (coffee is useful!)

In addition, you should familiarize yourself with the Man Overboard Location Alert System (OLAS), a valuable tool for maintaining a proper lookout.

🌊 Awareness Of Changing Weather And Sea Conditions 

A most important function of a lookout is to watch for changing weather conditions.

These may be squalls that seem to come out of nowhere and quickly move on, to major weather systems that impact safety.

The lookout should listen (or check the appropriate websites) for approaching weather conditions and, if possible, steer around these.

⚠️ Dangers Of Not Maintaining A Proper Lookout

If a good lookout is not kept, the ship may become involved in a dangerous, completely avoidable situation has a lookout has been on duty.

The risks that can be spotted and avoided by an alert lookout include the following:

  • Weather and visibility conditions.
  • Collisions with other ships.
  • Collisions and possible grounding with known and unknown navigation hazards.

An alert lookout may also spot another vessel in distress and enable a rescue to be carried out.

🔑 Key Takeaways

A lookout function is one of a boat’s most important safety activities. Here’s a recap of keeping a good lookout:

1️⃣ Maintaining a proper lookout by sight and hearing is a critical safety function on a vessel, required by law, and is essential for preventing dangerous situations from escalating.

2️⃣ The lookout’s responsibilities vary based on the size of the ship.

3️⃣ Best practices for keeping a lookout include having a powerful pair of binoculars, wearing sunglasses, dressing appropriately for the weather, and staying alert.

4️⃣ Not maintaining a proper lookout can lead to dangerous situations, including adverse weather conditions, collisions, and missing signs of other vessels in distress.

I’m the founder and chief editor here at Sailing Savvy. I spent a decade working as a professional mariner and currently, I mix those experiences with digital publishing. Welcome, and I hope that we can be the hub you need for safe passage.