Back when I first started ocean sailing, the most routinely challenging part of standing a watch was just keeping track of vessel traffic. If you didn’t have radar or couldn’t run it 24/7—as was and still is the case on most modest cruising sailboats—it could be downright nerve-wracking.
Working with your eyes only, the time you have between first sighting a large commercial vessel on the horizon and its running you down (assuming a collision course) is normally only about 15 minutes. If you fail to spot the vessel promptly, you have even less time. During that time, back in the bad old days, you first had to figure out the vessel’s orientation with respect to you. Then, if its course was converging with yours, you had to take a series of bearings on it to figure out how close it might get. If you thought the vessel might get too close, you had to try to initiate VHF radio contact, and then, finally, you had to take evasive action if (as often happened) the vessel failed to respond to your hail.
The downside of all this was that it often provoked anxiety, sometimes a great deal of it. However, the upside, directly stemming from that downside, was that the need to promptly spot other vessels and evaluate their dispositions normally kept you alert and keeping an eye on your surroundings. This is, of course, integral to the very concept of “standing watch.”
All this changed when AIS (Automatic Identification System) technology came along. Don’t get me wrong—I love my AIS transceiver and now wouldn’t think of going to sea without one. With AIS you can spot other vessels long before they appear on the horizon. You know instantly what their course and speed is and how close they will come to you. If you need to negotiate a pass, you can hail them by name and are much more likely to get a response.
The downside to all this upside, though, is that it is now much easier to become complacent while standing watch. The sad truth of this was first driven home to me several years ago while sailing on a passage down to the West Indies. I had one crewmember aboard, a newbie who had never sailed offshore before, and it was supremely discouraging to hear him ask after the first few days, quite sincerely, why we had to stand watch at all. As far as he could see, we could easily let the electronics stand watch for us.
Even among experienced sailors, there is a tendency to lapse into electronic overdependence. For many, the job of watching the world around us as we sail has devolved into a much more mundane task of simply monitoring an array of instruments. Just last fall I was sailing out of Chesapeake Bay with two experienced crew aboard, bound again for the West Indies, and soon after we started our watch rotation my first watch-stander came below to complain to me.
“Can you please show me how to turn on the AIS alarm?” he demanded.
I followed him up on deck, and he pointed accusingly at an enormous container ship just 100 yards off our starboard quarter, as if it were my fault he hadn’t noticed it until just that moment.
Perhaps there will come a day when we really need not look around as we navigate our boats across the briny. When that day comes, however, it may well be our boats won’t need us aboard at all. In the meantime, there are plenty of hazards we need to watch for that our instruments will never detect. Many smaller vessels, particularly fishing boats and other sailboats, still do not carry AIS transmitters, and even those large vessels that are required to carry AIS transceivers don’t always have them working properly. Plus, of course, there are any number of small details aboard and surrounding us that bear minding.
One of the reasons I got my current boat, a Boréal 47, is because it has a doghouse nav station where you can comfortably monitor instruments out of the weather. It’s a great asset, but also a liability. I have to constantly remind myself, and any crew sailing with me, that to truly stand watch you have to get out on deck and open your eyes.
Photo by Charles J. Doane