Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Lookout Rule

US Navy photo.

Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out 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.
-- Rule 5 of both the US Inland Navigation Rules and the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.
In many of the incidents I’ve been blogging about recently, whether the Costa Concordia disaster or the cell phone-related collisions, the question comes up: was the vessel crew standing a proper lookout? The Navigation Rules run to more than 200 pages of required lights, sound signals, and actions required in specific situation, but the short, one-sentence rule quoted above is the one most cited in legal actions against captains and other watch standers. As Judge John F. Swayne wrote in the 1872 case of the Ariadne (quoted in Farwell’s Rules of the Nautical Road by Craig H. Allen):
The duty of the lookout is of the highest importance. Upon nothing else does the safety of those concerned so much depend. A moment’s negligence on his part may involve the loss of his vessel with all the property and the lives of all on board…It is the duty of all courts charged with the administration of this branch of jurisprudence to give it the fullest effect whenever the circumstances are such as to call for its application.
Rule 5 requires that a lookout be maintained, not that a lookout be posted. Thus the rule refers to a process or action, and not a specific person. In cases of small boats, tugboats, and even small ships, courts have held that the helmsman or officer on watch can double as a lookout if circumstances are appropriate. The international regulations are a little more specific. Under the Standards of Training, Watchkeeping, and Certification (STCW)
The look-out must be able to give full attention to the keeping of a proper look-out and no other duties shall be undertaken or assigned which could interfere with that task.
But even STCW makes provision for a single person performing two functions. Even on large ships, a watch officer can serve as the lookout in certain situations.
On the other hand, in some cases more than one dedicated lookout may be required. One night near the mouth of the Sacramento River in thick fog, I had eight lookouts posted on deck as we approached the Rio Vista Bridge. But just having a bunch of people on deck or in the wheelhouse doesn’t count as having a proper lookout; in fact it can be a distraction. As the late Budd Gonder noted in his commentary on Rule 5:
The concept of a lookout can be misleading until an incident hits the courtroom. “Did you have a lookout posted?’
     “Well, yessir judge. We were all lookouts. Plain clear weather. How were we to know this guy would sail right out of the docks where we couldn’t see him coming? I know sailboats have the right –of-way over power, but we couldn’t see him, judge.”
     “Please answer the question. Was anyone on board specifically designated as lookout? Did you tell him or her that he or she was lookout?”
     “Well, no judge, you see we could all see…”
     Forget it. You just lost your case.

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1 comment:

  1. Hi Rob, great article. Do you happen to know which court cases established that the helmsman can also be lookout in small vessels?