Scanning for Safety

By Jack Klang
Quantum Cruising Consultant

It takes more than just knowledge of sailing to be a good skipper. Observing not only your boat but also the surrounding area is an important skill for every helmsman. Knowing what to look for will not only protect you and your boat, it could help save someone’s life.


Newer sailboats often have two helm positions with wheels on each side of the aft cockpit. On most sailboats, however, the helm is located in the aft of the boat. This gives the skipper a good view of the sails, the rigging, and location of crew and guests. Unfortunately, aft cockpits have a disadvantage because the field of vision is also obstructed by those same things.  


On large sailing vessels and most racing boats, a crew member stands on the bow as a lookout. His job is to observe and inform the skipper of boat traffic, aids to navigation, floating debris, and any potential danger. Without a lookout, that responsibility falls on the skipper.


Recently a cruiser and his wife were returning from a trip when he noticed the shackle holding the backstay of their mast about to break. The shackle pin was seriously bent. The 30 knot wind from astern would have caused it to break, sending the mast forward and causing damage, maybe even injuring his wife. His observation and quick action prevented a disaster. 


Once while sailing, I noticed a different look to the water’s surface. With the use of binoculars I discovered a mass of logs that had fallen from a lumber barge – thousands of unmarked logs, barely visible on the surface of the water. Had I hit the logs at 5-6 MPH, it could have easily holed my boat.


Observing not only your boat but also the surrounding area is an important skill for every helmsman. 


Careful observation not only prevents accidents, it can also save lives. Because I continuously scan the horizon, I have rescued six people in three different boating mishaps. There were no radio calls for help. There were no red flares. I simply noticed vessels looking and acting differently, or the people in the water. Had I not been watching the water, I would have sailed past them.


When you are sailing, constantly scan your boat, sails, rigging, crew, and everything around you. Look for anything that seems out of place or different than you expected. Watch for:


Mast, boom, stay and shroud, turnbuckle, or shackle irregularities

Frayed, unsecured, or tangled lines

Sail rips or tears

Crew and passenger positions

Tan or light blue (shallow) water

Changing wave patters

Squall line or thunder storms

Boys and navigation aids

Boat traffic

Other boaters needing assistance


For more information on this topic, read Chapman Piloting, Seamanship, and Small Boat Handling by Charles B. Husick. 





About the Author: Jack Klang is a Cruising Consultant for Quantum Sail Design Group. He has shared his vast experience with thousands of sailors through his seminars, a syndicated newspaper column, magazine feature articles, television and movie appearances. He is the author of  “Cruising with Quantum” a series of how-to articles covering all aspects of sailboat cruising as well as an instructional video. Jack is recognized as one of the country’s five best sailing speakers, appearing at boat shows across the country. For the past five decades, Jack has sailed the Great Lakes, Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico. He earned his first Coast Guard captain’s license at age 18 and has logged over 30,000 miles under sail as a cruiser, ASA instructor, charter captain and delivery skipper. Contact Jack at captjack1(at)

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