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Five Top Tips to make your log a legal document - and why

by John Jamieson on 11 Jan 2012
Sample log extract - Make your Boat log simple, clear, and legible. Use a single horizontal line for mistakes and initial the entry. Imagine that you hand your boat log to someone unfamiliar with sailing. Could he or she read and understand it? Make each entry in your log with this single point in mind. .. .

Did you know that all of sailing navigation starts with the boat log? And that this vital document can be used in a court of law? John Jamieson (Captain John) shows you how to make sure your boat log includes these entries for safety's sake!

We had caught them stealing red-handed, and now had them under arrest. It was a cold January day at sea. Throughout the night we had followed the huge fishing trawler as she sneaked into the waters of the delicate US Continental Shelf. Her goal was to fish for lobster--and that's just what she was doing in the middle of the night! Against the law? Without doubt! And we had her in our grasp.

Our boarding party was aboard, her captain confined to quarters, and our boarding crew had taken over the ship. We were escorting her into the port of New York, where her captain and crew would be formally arrested. After we moored, our Captain called me into his cabin. 'We need every chart, log, and document kept throughout the incident' he said. So, my crew and I gathered all together and went to see the prosecuting attorney.

Sure enough, those logs and charts were vital, legal documents that would make or break this case. And make it they did! The ship was seized, the captain and crew repatriated to their country in disgrace, and the Coast Guard credited with another bust of the bad guys...

While the sea story that you may have may not resemble this one, your boat logs will play an important role as a legal document if necessary. Keep your logs neat, concise, and use proper entry procedures. And that includes log entry corrections too (more on this later). Make log entries clear and simple. Set your boat log up so that it reads like a story (see the sample entries). That way, if someone else picks up your boat log, they will be able to read across the columns and interpret all events from start to finish. Follow these five basic rules of thumb:

1. Make Entries Each Hour:

Skippers make the call when it comes to log entry frequency. But it's best to keep consistent log keeping--and that means once each hour. This gives you more historical data for weather, engineering, and navigation. Compare this to a graph. The more points plotted onto the graph within a smaller time frame, the smoother and more complete the historical picture. Make more frequent log entries for an easier-to-understand story of your boat's history.

2. Separate Navigation from Engineering:

Consider separate log books or log book sections to segregate navigation entries and engineering related entries. Note in the illustrations how the navigation entries can include weather because wind and sea direction have a direct impact on the available sailing course. Engineering entries should include engine, water and fuel capacity, battery voltage, and holding tank level (if available).

3. Correct Mistakes the Correct Way:

Ban scribbles from your logs. Use a single horizontal line and initial the correction near the entry. That way, the correction can still be read and you can address any questions to the person who made the correction.

4. Log Times for Underway, Anchoring, Mooring, and Landfall:

Start your log with the time that you cast off. For example: '0930 Underway from Newport Yacht Club, Rhode Island en route St. Maarten, Caribbean'. Log similar entries when you anchor or moor inside a harbor. Make landfall a key entry in your boat log. Write down the time of landfall, how it was sighted (visually, by radar), and specify the name of the lighthouse, island, or point of land. You might also add comments such as relative direction of sighting (dead ahead; off the port bow; off the starboard bow) and current weather conditions.

5. Protect Your Log Book for the Future:

Keep your boat log in a safe area where you can access it in a moment's notice. In an emergency, your log needs to go with you, along with your 'ditch kit'. Once you fill up your logbook, put it into a plastic, waterproof bag to protect it from mold, mildew, or water damage. When you leave the boat for extended periods, carry your logbook with you.


Follow these five simple sailing navigation rules of log keeping on your cruising sailing boat. Gain the peace-of-mind that comes when you keep this vital document up to date--wherever in the world you choose to cruise!

John Jamieson (Captain John) with 25+ years of experience shows you the no-nonsense cruising skills you need beyond sailing school. Visit his website at www.skippertips.com for a free sailing tips newsletter. Become a member for instant access to 425+ articles, instructional videos, newsletters, e-Books, and live discussion forums.

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