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Checklists not just for pilots

Feb 29, 2016

To the editor: Many know about the friendly rivalries that exist between the different military services, but what you may not know is that there are also rivalries between communities within the same service. In the Coast Guard for example, those of us who spend our careers going to sea in ships are called Cuttermen. Well, Cuttermen and Coast Guard pilots have a light-hearted rivalry that is usually limited to friendly banter and jokes at each others’ expense. All jokes aside, I have a deep respect for the work that my brothers and sisters wearing wings do. Of course, while I do think very highly of them, it does cause me to cringe when I have to openly praise them, but here I go: Aviators are exceptional at following standard procedures and using checklists. Okay, so now that that’s out in the open you’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with you.

Recently a friend and I were going out for a daysail on his Catalina 42. He is a very detail-oriented person and takes great pride in how meticulously he maintains his boat. Knowing that as an engineer and sailor I would appreciate a lot of the improvements he’s made to his vessel, we spent some time crawling around before heading out. I was impressed with his thoroughness and attention to detail. Nothing on the boat was repaired or maintained in a careless manner or jury-rigged. That’s why I was particularly surprised that when it came time for us to head out, we quickly went through the necessary steps without any checklist.

It had been a while since I had been out sailing on a boat as big and complex as his Catalina; most of my recent sailing has been on small day sailers. Therefore, as we prepared to get underway, I immediately reverted to my professional life in the Coast Guard. Borrowing a page from the aviators’ book of tricks, Cuttermen use detailed checklists before we get underway. In fact, in our most complex ships we have several checklists, some of which we start more than a week before our planned sail date. We make it a point to test everything from electronics and radar systems to our steering gear and main engines. Every system on board has detailed steps that must be completed to properly bring the ship from “cold iron” to fully operational and ready to sail. 

As we prepared to head out on my friend’s Catalina, it occurred to me that not only had I not recalled ever using any kind of checklist before going sailing, but I had not heard of anyone else doing so either. Lastly, it struck me that if my very thorough and detail-oriented friend didn’t use one, then I can’t imagine there are many people who would. I can hear some of you now: “A checklist? It’s a sailboat, not the space shuttle; and besides I’ve been sailing all my life. I don’t need any reminders, the process is second nature to me.” These are valid points and I don’t disagree, but allow me to provide some food for thought. 

First, how many times have you had to change your water pump impeller because you forgot to open the seacock? If the answer is more than “zero,” then I’d offer that perhaps a simple checklist could have saved you the time, effort, money and aggravation that ensued. Of course, a simple checklist for securing the boat at the end of the day can be equally helpful — anyone ever forget to turn off some electronics or forget to turn on the battery charger, only to return a week later to a dead battery? Not only are mistakes like this inconvenient, but they may impact the life and reliability of the equipment and cost money. Surely we’ve all heard stories of someone who forgot to put the drain plug in before they launched the dinghy or backed the trailer down the ramp. 

Second, I’ve found that often when I invite family or friends to go sailing with me, they’re very enthusiastic to help and be part of everything but often a lack of knowledge or experience stands in the way. If you then add some impatience to the equation, it can be easy for an enjoyable day to start out with me just trying to get the boat ready to go as quickly as possible to so we can head out and begin our time on the water. Of course, when trying to rush or surrounded by distractions it’s just that much easier to forget something. But what if you had a checklist? Not only could it prevent you from inadvertently forgetting something, but you could also dole out duties and responsibilities to your guests. By contributing to the operation of the boat, they’d likely enjoy the experience more.

Third, there’s no right or wrong way to implement checklists. You can just have a checklist for getting the boat ready to get underway, or you can have literally dozens of checklists for securing the boat, winterizing the boat, putting in/shaking out a reef, anchoring, changing the engine oil, inspecting the rig, etc. Similarly, you can make each checklist as detailed or bare bones as you’d like. You can even make checklists of procedures to follow in the event of a failure — for example, what steps to take and in what order should the engine overheat.

In the Coast Guard we have standardized steps that watch standers must memorize (and demonstrate from memory) for a variety of emergencies in order to become qualified. The overheating engine would be one example; a man overboard would be another. We then routinely conduct drills to reinforce these standardized emergency procedures so they become second nature to every member of the crew. 

If you’re not jotting down ideas for your own checklists right now, then I hope that I’ve at least convinced you that they can be valuable.

—Michael Cilenti is a Coast Guard officer and sailor. He served as chief engineer of the 270-foot cutter Forward.

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