Breakout Session: Situational Awareness

The Concept

This means being aware of the conditions, occurrences, and influences in play during any situation. The Leader must be simultaneously leading and “looking around”, so as to be able to understand and react to what is happening to maximize opportunities and be prepared for emerging challenges. While it is easy for the Leader to become absorbed in the details, this is a mistake. The Leader needs to be fully aware of how a situation is developing, focused both in the boat and out of the boat. Some call this “court vision,” or an ability to “see around corners.” Just because response to an issue started a certain way, the Leader must be aware that things might change, demanding an altered approach. As things change, often a new path forward must be developed, quickly and correctly.

Facilitator: Dick York

The Findings

“Situational Awareness is:

  • The perception of environmental elements and events in both time and space,
  • The comprehension of their meaning, and
  • The projection of their future status.
  • Then, making proper decisions and take action.
  • Repeat as needed.

“We called this the Situational Awareness Cycle.” – Dick York

This group’s case study was the 2013 Islands Race incident where the boat Uncontrollable Urge lost her rudder and ended up drifting onto San Clemente Island, with the loss of one crew. https://cdn.ussailing.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/2013-Islands-Race-Report.pdf

Key Best Practices

  • Use the principles of Bridge Resource Management (BRM); establish routine observation and communication involving all of the crew.
  • Work consciously to observe accurately and avoid “observation bias” (disregarding observations that do not fit your prior experiences).
  • Base decisions on good seamanship; avoid decision making that is not based on good seamanship, and be careful to exclude outside biases.
  • In emergencies – consider the worst case/maximum possible loss and minimize the likelihood of that loss. 
  • Continuously update observations and consider whether you have to remake decisions. 
  • Rely on distributed functions and responsibilities (from the Station Bill). 

Things to avoid

  • Mental models and decisions based on overconfidence in you or your boat. 
  • Dismissing remarks from the newest or least experienced crew. Listen. 
  • Ignoring the possibility of a catastrophic loss because you think the probability of it happening is low.
Low Speed Chase got caught in surf rounding the Farallon Islands when she cut the corner, passing over water shallow enough to cause the ocean swell to break. Five of the eight crew were swept overboard and killed. This was a clear case of lack of situational awareness, compounded by an Owner handing over the role of Skipper to a visiting racer. Neither paid adequate attention to navigation, raising questions about responsibility and accountability.
Volvo 65 Team Vestas runs aground on reef in the Indian Ocean due to the navigator not zooming in along the route or cross-checking the electronic vector charts with paper charts. This is an example of lack of Situational Awareness and the Skipper and Navigator should have been double checking each other.

Recommended changes to improve Safety-at-Sea training and education

  • Use actual cases in SAS Training.
  • Have boat crews together when training on Leadership.
  • Practice onboard problem situations.
  • Publish a model/standard Situational Awareness planning and decision-making mental flowchart.

Panel Watch Bill (Group Members) 

  • Dick York – Facilitator, STC, CCA, Chair US Sailing SAS
  • Don Poirier – Scribe – Cap. USNA Varsity Offshore Sailing Team
  • Ty Anderson – STC, Riverside YC
  • John Browning – STC, Manhassett Bay YC, NYYC
  • Daniel Galyon – STC, NYYC
  • Richard Hersh – Yale University
  • Buttons Padin – STC, Larchmont YC
  • Dawn Riley – STC, Oakcliff, Whitbread
  • John Robinson – Chair of CCA Seamanship Committee
  • Eric Simonson – Mountaineer Guide
  • Jahn Tihansky – STC, CCA, Head Coach USNA

Breakout Session Outputs:

The 2021 Offshore Sailing Leadership Symposium was made possible thanks to the following partners:

Presenting Partner


Supporting Partners