From the Pilot House

Airline cockpit procedures, applied to recreational boating.

After many years of chartering, we decided to purchase a Trawler. Like many sailors, this purchase has fulfilled a lifelong dream and will become the cornerstone of an active and exciting retirement for us in Sidney.

One of the best parts of the purchase process was getting to know the staff and owners at Cooper Boating and NW Explorations. At the time of our purchase, the two companies were merging to provide excellent service and maintenance to sailors, trawler owners and charter customers in the Pacific NW. 

Recently, the owner of NW Explorations, Ross Tennant, offered me the opportunity to help him reposition a Flemming 55. The trawler arrived in Victoria harbour via transport ship. She then had to be sailed around to Sidney for a checkout from NW Explorations Head of Maintenance and co-owner, John Naissichuck. 

The Importance of Checklists

Just as we were about to start engines and depart, I pulled out my Before Start Checklist. I had made generic checklists up years ago when we started chartering boats. After Ross started the twin diesels, I had my After Start Checklist ready to go.

Seeing my excitement, Ross soon offered me the helm. As I aquatinted myself with the task, I reviewed with Ross the status of the boat, the course I was to steer, power settings and general navigation. 

Before we arrived in Sidney, Ross explained how the arrival would proceed and what we would do if the docking did not unfold as planned. I then mentioned that, as we entered the marina, all discussions should be limited to docking the customer’s boat. Ross had to be thinking, who is this guy?

After successfully tying up in Port of Sidney, we discussed trends in the charter boat industry and the need to better train new owners and improve the skills of existing charter customers to meet increasingly stringent insurance requirements.

Increased Insurance Scrutiny

Ross and Colin Jackson (another part owner of Cooper Boating/NW Explorations) explained that marine insurance companies are putting greater emphasis on charter outfits to verify that customers have relevant and recent experience in the vessels they charter and the waters they cruise in. Increasingly, the industry is demanding more experience from owners and more training for charter customers. Boats, engines, and systems are becoming more complicated. This led to a discussion about my work and how it relates to the boating industry.

So, as Ross undoubtedly pondered, who is this guy?

Why Flying is Like Boating

As you may have surmised, I’m an airline Captain flying a 787 at the tag end of my career. My boating experience comes from working Search and Rescue as a summer student in the Canadian Coast Guard, owning a 23’ cuddy cabin and, a frequent charter customer of trawlers and sail boats.

In my industry, we place a heavy reliance on training, standard operating procedures (S.O.P’s), checklists, risk mitigation and what we call, Crew Resource Management. These skill sets were developed as a necessity when accident investigators learned in the 1960’s and 1970’s that many airline accidents were no longer attributed solely to the result of faulty machinery or bad weather but rather, human error. 

The manufactures were to blame for many accidents in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Engineers began designing and building better and more reliable aircraft that rarely, if ever, failed catastrophically.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, it was time for the airline training industry to up their game and produce better trained pilots, mechanics, dispatchers, and load agents. 

Training in the airline industry never ends. Captain Chesley Sullunberger who successfully dead-sticked a powerless Airbus A320 into the Hudson River made this remark about his training. “I continually made small deposits of skill and knowledge throughout my career and then suddenly one day, I had to make a very large withdrawal.” As sailors, we should also continually strive to improve our skill set.

Ross had observed how I had utilized my experience as an airline pilot and adapted it to the task of sailing an unfamiliar boat. 

He was very interested in learning about the procedures and techniques we are trained to use in commercial aircraft. Many of these lessons can be put to use in the operation of your boat or on your next charter. You can apply these measures to raise the bar of safety, mitigate risk and keep you, your passengers, and your vessel safe.

The Sterile Cockpit Rule

Let’s begin with a common one. The 10,000 foot Sterile Cockpit Rule.

In commercial aviation, most companies have this rule. To be clear, ‘sterile cockpit’ refers to ‘no extraneous conversation’. It does not refer to COVID protocols, Quarantine Procedures, or one’s inability to have little sailors!

From the time a Captain calls for the Before Engine Start Checklist at the gate, and until the plane has taken off and climbed through 10,000 feet, the only conversation you will hear in the flight deck is of operational matters. The same is true on arrival. No extraneous conversation is heard in descent until the jet is parked at the gate, engines shut down and the Parking and Termination Checklist is complete.

We can use the same principle when we are leaving or retuning to the marina. Similarly, we can also apply this rule when transiting a narrow passage, navigating one of the challenging passes in the Gulf Islands or any area that requires attention to detail and precise navigation.

This is an especially good practice when you have guests aboard. We often have friends and family who may not be aware of the critical nature of some of the navigation hazards we have to deal with. It is family time, but our guests should be briefed that in certain critical phases of operation, you and your crew are fully engaged in managing the boat. 

Rather than thinking you are Captain Bligh, your guests and crew will appreciate and respect your professionalism. It’s a signal to them that you take their safety seriously. The response you receive will be a reflection of your leadership and communication skills. A Captain many years ago taught me this simple phrase for communication style, “Keep it firm, fair and friendly” he said. Every time I address the passengers or the crew, those words enter my mind.

Firm, Fair, and Friendly

Some skippers use hand signals, others are now using headsets, others still scream at each other, not so friendly! Whatever means you decide to use for communication, make it clear what the roles and communication cues are in departing and arriving. Inform your guests that there are times when the boat demands your full attention. They can help by not distracting you during times of high workload but be at the ready and available to take direction from you when required. You can also remind them that pointing out hazards you seem to have missed is greatly appreciated! With experience, guests will soon learn what is a hazard worthy of mention during critical phases of operation. It is all part of being one of the crew.

Next time you venture out, brief your crew, and give the ‘Sterile Cockpit Concept’ a try. See if it enhances your situational awareness, focuses your crews’ efforts on the important tasks at hand, and results in less stressful departures and arrivals!

Chris MacKenzie

Owner – Pilot House

NT42

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