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Checklisting for seaworthiness before departing the dock

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What is the issue?
The International Sailing Federation (ISAF) state that the... 'safety of a yacht and her crew is the sole and inescapable responsibility of the person in charge, who must do his or her best to ensure that the yacht is fully sound, thoroughly seaworthy and manned by an experienced crew who have undergone appropriate training and are physically fit to face bad weather. He/she must be satisfied as to the soundness of hull, spars, rigging, sails and all gear. He/she must ensure that all safety equipment is properly maintained and stowed and that the crew knows where it is kept and how it is to be used.'

Seagoing vessels are highly complicated craft. Ensuring that all the critical items have been checked, that the crew have been fully briefed and that nothing has been overlooked, will stretch human memory and attention to the potential limits.

Why address this?
Regardless of burden, this obligation is placed solely upon the skipper and it is essential to thoroughly check a vessel and particularly so before departing the dock. As often as not it isn't the things that you regularly worry about that let you down, but the things that you had not considered, or thought you could rely upon, that catch you out by surprise. Getting on top of the vessel as a whole prior to departure will eliminate many issues.

How to address this?
Check lists are the only safe means of checking all the bases are covered. Checklists have transformed safety critical operations such as aviation and the health industry. A good example has been the adoption of the checklists in the UK national health service where subsequent data showed that mortality dropped by almost a quarter and all complications almost halved.

The only downside to using checklists is that they may hinder performance when dealing with a time-critical situation. Likewise, checklists should not be rigidly adhered to as a replacement for common sense. Below are some checklists that may help or form the basis for vessel-specific tailored checklists.


The following checklists can be used to help familiarise a skipper with a new vessel and/or to perform routine checks before setting out:

  • ☐ Location of bilge pumps (manual and electric), that they are all operational and that the bilge is dry

  • ☐ Location of battery isolator switch

  • ☐ Location VHF Radio (main and handheld)

    • • Check both switch on and tune-in

    • • Check squelch function

    • • Check it is changing channels

    • • Check press to transmit

    • • Understand DSC capability and function if present

    • • Location of a distress instruction list - or create one

  • ☐ Location of all through-hull fittings Experience (seacocks, log and echo sounder transducer fittings) for accessibility, condition along with the condition of connected hoses

  • ☐ Location of stuffing box and pack if present - required each visit to the boat

  • ☐ Location of emergency bungs

  • ☐ Location of diesel filler and fill level

  • ☐ Location of water filler and fill level

  • ☐ Location of gas bottles and fill level

  • ☐ Locate and check the gas taps are clear of gas

  • ☐ Location of of the navigation lights and that they are working

  • ☐ Location of emergency lighting such as torches, headlamps, boat spotlight etc

  • ☐ Locate the emergency tiller and check that it fits

  • ☐ Location of heads and operating procedure

  • ☐ If there are any strange burning smells check electrical wiring

  • ☐ Location of various onboard instrumentation and that they are operating correctly

  • ☐ Location of appropriate pilots, charts

  • ☐ Obtain the latest weather forcast, tidal data and time of sunset

General engine familiarisation checklist:

  • ☐ General overview and understanding

  • ☐ Engine Stop/Start procedure

  • ☐ Batteries are charged and the voltage rises to charge voltage when running

  • ☐ Throttle/gear position

  • ☐ Check raw water inlet and the sea cock is on

  • ☐ Check and clean raw water filter and is clear

  • ☐ Check oil level and consistency

  • ☐ Check gearbox oil

  • ☐ Check coolant level

  • ☐ Check belt tensions

  • ☐ Check location of tools, spares such as fan belt, impeller etc

  • ☐ After starting check that the oil pressure light does not illuminate and water is exiting from the exhaust outlet

  • ☐ Check the engine engages into forward and reverse before you leave the berth


Try avoid permitting smoking aboard it is an unnecessary risk. Even above decks ‘hot ash’ damages eyes and the sails.

  • ☐ Location of fire extinguishers & fire blanket, cabins, saloon, engine space and aft locker and their methods of operation

  • ☐ Locate First Aid Box, and check contents

  • ☐ Locate Medical First Aid Manual

  • ☐ Location of escape hatches

  • ☐ Galley stove and procedure

    • • Check that it is operating correctly

    • • Never leave a naked flame unattended

    • • No chip pans or meals that require hot oils should be planned

    • • Turn off the gas isolator at the stove between uses of the stove

    • • A safe and protective fronting guard is prefered

    • • An apron worn while cooking prevents serious burns

  • ☐ Location of gas sniffer alarm if present

  • ☐ Location of carbon monoxide alarm and check its function if present

  • ☐ Location of safety harness through deck fittings and condition of the jack stays

  • ☐ Locate the escape routes of each area of the vessel

Keep a check on expiry dates of the above equipment. Be particularly careful with gas because it is heavier than air and any leak will sink into the bilge and accumulate there. If this takes place in a high enough concentration a tiny spark, which can be generated by a switch or even static electricity, could ignite the accumulated gas and blow the boat apart. It is always advisable to turn off the gas bottle when you leave the vessel and during the night. If a gas leak is suspected, close off the supply at the bottle, ventilate the vessel and manually pump the bilges. Do not use the electric bilge pump, or touch any switch as it could cause a spark, and don't inspect the vessel with a naked flame.


A general crew familiarisation with the vessel, operating policies and emergency briefing before departing is essential. Gas protocol and an introduction to the general items above, such as how to use the heads and stove and its associated safety features provide a good lead into the discussion.

  • ☐ Walk the crew through the boat basics

    • • Location of their assigned berths, and their personal items storage location

    • • Location of domestic items such as coffee, tea milk, and food

    • • Location of the garbage bin

    • • Location of toilet roll(s) etc

    • • Any special needs?

  • ☐ Overview the planned journey. Talk them through the considerations regarding the destination, distance, charts, time, tidal streams, conditions to expect. Enquire and discuss what they individually wish to achieve and what they expect

  • ☐ If there are novices aboard brief them on the best steps to take to avoid seasickness Experience

  • ☐ Explain the action to be taken in an emergency. That it is their responsibility to join the rest of the crew on deck, suitably dressed with lifejacket and harness on

  • ☐ Ensure that everyone has a lifejacket of the correct size and that they can be adjusted so they correctly fit when wearing wet weather clothing. It is advisable that life jackets be worn at all times in the dinghy, and on deck:

    • • during fog

    • • during hours of darkness

    • • in poor conditions

    • • at all times for non-swimmers

  • ☐ All crewmembers should know where to clip the harnesses on to ‘D’ rings and the jackstays. In poor conditions, crew members should clip on before leaving the cockpit Experience companionway and not to unclip until they return inside the cockpit companionway. In very poor conditions two safety harnesses should be used so that there can be no time that the crew member is not connected to the vessel. The briefing should include:

    • • Where the safety harnesses are stowed

    • First-hand experience with double action locking safety hooks so everybody knows how they work

    • • When to wear them

    • • The locations of the attaching points and jackstays

  • ☐ The location of the safety knife Experience and its purpose

  • ☐ Location of lifebuoys, quoit & line, Danbuoy. When to use them and method of operation

  • ☐ MOB Procedure, keep eyes on MOB, heave to and await instruction

  • ☐ The location of flares and emergency radio aerial if available. Where they are stowed, the types of flare carried and when they are used. Methods of operation may be deferred

  • ☐ Grab bag and dry bag(s) locations

  • ☐ Location of the liferaft. When and how to launch it, painter explanation, boarding and included survival contents

  • ☐ Location of Epirb and method of operation

  • ☐ Heaving line location

  • ☐ Nominate a person to take over the responsibilities of the 'Person in Charge' in the event of skipper incapacitation.


More than two out of every three boats sink at the dock or mooring so a final check is vitally important for the security of the vessel. When leaving the vessel it is advisable to work systematically starting forward and working aft.

  • ☐ Check all the hatches and portals are secured and locked

  • ☐ That all the lights and instruments are switched off

  • ☐ Check the condition of all vessel’s seacocks and close them off

  • ☐ Open the fridge door/lid and leave it open to prevent mildew forming

  • ☐ Close the gas tap off at the cylinder

  • ☐ Isolate the batteries

  • ☐ Clear the decks of all items and tidy the lines

  • ☐ Lock off the wheel/rudder on the centerline

  • ☐ Fit all protective covers to the sails, wheel etc

  • ☐ Lock the companionway and external lockers

  • ☐ Check all the mooring lines are securely belayed and not subject to undue chafe

  • ☐ Fill in the log book daily. Enter engine hours and log pending.

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur SY Obsession
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