Individual comments in this story are not attributed as to encourage candid discussion; attending captains are identified in the accompanying photograph. Captains who make their living running someone else’s yacht are welcome to join in the conversation. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge discussion.
By Dorie Cox
Long after a captain’s yacht job had ended, he was asked to turn over a tender log for use in a court case –but he had not kept a separate book for the yacht’s tender. That scenario was the start of the conversation with seven captains at The Triton’s From the Bridge lunch discussion last month.
Log books are part of daily life in yachting, and it turns out, there are plenty of them.
“We have better than 10 on board,” one captain said.
The captains shouted out the names of some they use: oil record, engineering, garbage, navigation, GMDSS and radio, safety, medical, ballast, deck, security, and hours of work and rest.
“There are official log books and unofficial,” a captain said. “Some of them I don’t even see. I see them on an annual basis, but I know they’re all getting done.”
One captain was not surprised by the discussion topic of tender logs; he voluntarily keeps a separate log and said the notes prevented a legal problem for him.
“We had a tender that was in less-than-perfect condition,” he said. The motor had blown and when the crew was accused of not taking care of the vessel, the logbook proved they had done proper maintenance.
“The log ended in court,” he said. “The crux of it is, my log got us out of trouble.”
Another captain who integrates the tender details into the yacht’s main log book, said the records pay off.
“There were so many crew using the tender and they were not checking the oil, the fuel, if the anchor was properly stowed,” a captain said. “So now we have a whole checklist. Anything’s not right, they have to bring it to be acknowledged. It helps us service the engines and know if anything’s defective.”
Out of all the log books the captains listed, most of the group said the engineer’s log book is among the most valuable. One captain said his prevented serious engine damage.
“The engineer was doing the running log and it showed the fuel temps were rising,” he said. “We saw it quick and could fix it. If you don’t have a log book, you won’t see changes. Our log saved us.”
The log of the yacht build-engineer is just as vital, another captain said.
“It’s the most important log, it keeps all the build notes with running temperatures and pressures,” he said. “It lets you know things like when the propeller is less than efficient.”
The captains continued with more stories of how log books have proved beneficial. Log notes and photos kept by one of the captains helped after he resigned from a yacht.
“It’s traditional in this industry, anytime a new captain comes on, to blame the previous captain,” he said. There was agreement from captains around the room. “Information in those logs was what saved me from a lawsuit from the owner.”
Log books have reinforced decisions made by several captains. One captain’s risk assessment notes served to back up his reluctance to go to sea in a condition he did not think was safe. His records validated his concerns when the flag state officers investigated.
“I write when there is a bad weather forecast and the boss wants to take the trip anyway,” a captain said.
Log books have even gotten crew a pay raise and kept crew jobs when the owner threatened to cut positions. Documented daily duties can prove a crew member is worth having on board.
If asked, “What do you guys do all day?,” you can show what you’ve actually done, a captain said.
Surprisingly, captains continued to come up with more log books than they mentioned at the start of the discussion.
“One that’s come back and helped me many times is the vehicle log,” a captain said. “When you get in, you keep track of mileage, purpose of the trip, who’s driving, the time, when you park it and where you go.”
It has proved vital after a parking ticket and a red-light ticket arrived in the mail, he said.
“We had someone claim a hit-and-run, and we could prove the vehicle wasn’t even in the same county,” he said.
We asked just how captains actually record data. Most write in paper log books; paper is still compliant with most laws. But several captains said they log other data on personal devices, including one captain who uses his phone and tablet to take pictures and record audio notes while navigating in new ports.
“While underway, there may be a cactus or a hump on a rock on a certain heading,” he said. “If it’s an uncertain place, we’ll be marking things for future use.”
Several captains keep spreadsheets of data, such as maintenance logs. Although not necessarily compliant, the information can be useful.
“You can make nice graphs and see trends over time,” one captain said.
Even with all these existing logs, laws and regulations continue to add new log books to the mix.
“If you’ve been traveling around the world and you’re in California, you may need something like a ship’s cargo log,” a captain said. “Private vessels just don’t have it. In New Zealand we needed a log book for gases that affect the ozone; I didn’t even know about that. And a battery log.”
To be compliant, the captain searched online, downloaded a required log book and filled in the data.
“The next guy doesn’t even ask for it, but you just have to do it and keep all this stuff,” he said.
“Every year there’s something new,” another captain said. “You have to keep your fuel samples for your pollution insurance so they can tell if it’s your boat if you spill.”
Even though much of what the captains record helps with yacht operations, annual surveys and inspections are when log books are most important.
“Every year, during the official survey, they ask for them,” a captain said. “But they never check to make sure the information is correct.”
“They’re not making sure you were where you said you were,” another captain said.
“If the flag state realizes you run a good operation, they typically don’t need to see more detail,” a third captain said. “If they see a shoddy operation, they will ask, ‘Why is this not logged and this not logged?’ ”
“Do you do your minutes?” one captain asked the others. He said he has been asked by the flag state for safety drill minute-by-minute records.
“I do it during the drill, as soon as that alarm goes off,” a captain said. “I find the closest piece of paper and start writing down what’s going on. And so often we just put that paper in the log.”
“That’s what I’ve always done, but I got called up on it,” the first captain said.
At times, all this record-keeping feels laborious.
“There are a lot of redundancies,” a captain said. “We do a drill and I put it in the official log book. If we’re away, I also put it in the navigation log book, and then the engineer puts it in his log book.”
But even with all this valuable data, captains often record information they feel they don’t really need, such as the daily draft of the vessel, which the captain said varies only an inch or so. But they value the information they really want to keep track of, a captain said.
“Like the engineering book we keep for us,” a captain said. “The engine room has shelves of logs and manuals. The ones we keep unofficially are more important for the day-to-day and for the longevity of the boat.”
There is not a specific course in how to use log books, so we asked how they know what to do.
“I learned from the Navy,” a captain said.
“It’s OJT, on-the-job training,” another said.
“If it’s an official log book, a flag state book, the first page has instructions of what to fill in and how often,” a third captain said.
Since much of what captains know about log books has been pieced together through experience, we asked for tips to share with new crew:
“I wish everyone knew to keep the log with the yacht.”
“It is important to keep complete details, and each year it becomes more important.”
“Use real words. Don’t abbreviate UR.”
“When you pick it up, you put it back,” said a captain who has seen damaged and lost logs.
“Be diligent, don’t put off to tomorrow, then it just becomes a bigger mess,” another captain said. “No matter what you need to do, record the information when it is fresh. You can make scrap notes if you have to. The more you wait, the more you forget details. And it is all in the details.”
Corrections must be crossed through with one line and initialed. If there are blank lines, they should be crossed out with “no further entries” written in, a captain said. And all entries must be written in black or blue pen. One yacht allows only those color pens on the boat.
The captains agreed that log book information needs to be taken seriously.
“Audit yourself. Nobody can change the history,” a captain said. “The running official log is a legal document. When the s— goes down, these log books go to the lawyers.”
“The gist of log books is they don’t ever get used unless there is a problem,” another captain said.
Although log books are important, they come second to doing the job.
“Never let policy override your common sense if you’re facing a choice to run the helm or write,” a captain said.
Another captain learned that lesson when he took flying lessons. The airport tower called to request information. He began to look for it when the instructor shouted, “Fly the plane.” The plane had begun to lose altitude.
“You have to run the boat. You can assign someone to write notes. Make the logbooks accessible crew-wide,” another captain said.
“How did you crash? I was filling out the log book,” a captain said, as he laughed. “The main thing is to drive the boat and do your job. What’s the point of keeping a paper log if you crash?”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below.