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The Power Of Checklists

Green Marker Checking Checklist Checkbox

Our memories may be fallible — checklists are not.

We've all been there. We leave the boat, then halfway home wonder if we remembered to close the seacocks or connect shore power or some other potentially worrisome chore. We either turn around and go all the way back to check, or have a few sleepless nights until we return to the boat. But there's a simple, old-school way to avoid this: checklists. You almost certainly already use them anyway (even a recipe is a kind of checklist), so why not use one of the most powerful tools you already have? You'll not only sleep better, you might even save your boat.

Why You Should Use A Checklist

Checklists verify that you've done what you need to.
They save time when you have repetitive tasks.
Checklists free up mental memory for other things.
They provide concrete evidence that you didn't forget anything.

When you do something that involves multiple steps, it's easy to forget one or two of them, and sometimes missing even a simple thing can have major implications. Checklists counteract our forgetfulness. Many professionals, such as airline pilots, use checklists several times each flight. Airline pilot Brian Koda, who also flies military aircraft as a Naval Reservist, says there are no fewer than six checklists that pilots use just to get the airplane from the gate to the runway. Some checklists, he said, are "written in blood," which means they were developed after a catastrophe to prevent it from happening again. Surgeons also use checklists to make sure they don't forget something critical in the operating room. Checklists for boaters can include mundane predeparture routines to those that help you in an emergency, such as what to do if your boat is sinking.

To make them more useful, checklists should be more than just a few things jotted on a scrap of paper. You'll want to first focus on the essential stuff that is frequently overlooked or skipped that may potentially sink your boat or endanger your crew. Next, what can damage your engine or electrical system? Finally, include a couple of small things that tend to slip through the cracks (see samples below). Checklists should ideally have no more than 10 items and should be able to accomplish in 1 to 2 minutes or they may start to feel like a distraction, which is when people often start "shortcutting," thus reducing their effectiveness. As the pilot told us, you can't spell out every single detail; a checklist cannot fly a plane. If you need more items, just make a separate checklist. For example, if your "leaving the boat" checklist is too long, make one for "locking up the boat" and another for "returning to the dock."


To make a reusable checklist, laminate the page and use a dry-erase marker to check off each task when completed.

You'll want to use your checklist, test it, and refine it a few times as needed. If something changes on your boat, like you add a washdown pump that you want to remember to switch off at the panel, add it, though you may need to combine it with other similar tasks so the list doesn't get too long. In this case, you can add turning off the washdown pump to, say, turn off the cabin lights. For most uses, checklists should be a simple, one-page document printed in an easy-to-read font and a place to clearly check off each item.

Digital Checklists

If you prefer not to use a physical checklist, there are websites and apps that can make the job easy. Google Tasks might be the easiest as it integrates with your Google account if you have one so you can access your checklists on any connected device.

There are many apps for making checklists on your smartphone or tablet, and most are free. Many of them sync to all your devices, allowing you to use any connected device onboard.

Remember The Milk
Microsoft To Do

For iPhone users, the built-in Notes app also has the ability to easily make checklists, and your iCloud account can make them instantly available on your tablet.

Some checklists will simply be a read-do, which means you read what it says and do it (turn off air conditioner – check; close head seacock – check) while other are do-confirm, which means do the tasks and then pause to verify that everything was done by turning to your checklist and confirming (load boat with supplies and water toys for the day – check).

You can have several checklists for different situations. For example, one for a daily outing, another for returning to the dock, another for leaving the boat for the day, another for winterizing. You may also want to have emergency checklists (boat is taking on water or smoke alarm is sounding). If you're injured or highly stressed, having a checklist can help you think clearly. And, if they are easy to access, emergency checklists can allow inexperienced crewmembers to help if the skipper is unable.

Sample Checklists


  Connect coupler to ball — check that latch is locked & bolted securely
  Connect safety chains and cross below ball
  Connect wiring for lights
  Connect safety cable to vehicle
  Crank up tongue jack and lock it up
  Check winch is tight and locked
  Check tire pressure and condition
  Check all trailer lights
  Check tie-down straps

Gasoline Fueling

  Shut off engine
  Turn off electronics
  Microsoft To Do
  Remove all passengers from boat
  Close ports, hatches, doors
  Make sure it is the proper type of fuel
  Open ports, hatches, doors to ventilate
  Turn blower on for 4 minutes minimum
  Do sniff test
  Start engine
  Reboard passengers

Starting Engine

  Open seacock if inboard or sterndrive
  Visually inspect engine and bilge for leaks, loose items, etc.
  Inboards and sterndrives: Close engine/ bilge hatch, run blower for 5 minutes prior to starting
  Lower outboard engine or sterndrive
  Two-stroke owners check oil in tank
  Verify safety lanyard in proper position
  Check that shifter is in neutral and throttle in correct position
  Start engine
  Check for oil pressure, cooling water exit

Trailer Boat (end-of-day checklist)

  Flush engine per owner's manual instructions
  Remove electronics if not inside cabin
  Microsoft To Do
  Remove personal items, food, and gear
  Stow any gear remaining on boat
  Wash down boat, motor, and trailer with biodegradable boat soap and freshwater
  Allow to air dry before covering boat
  Treat vinyl with dressing
  Store under cover — be sure air circulates underneath

Additional Checklists


Charles Fort

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

Charles Fort handles BoatUS Magazine’s exclusive Reports section, a group of in-depth tech features in every issue written to help readers avoid accidental damage to their boats. He’s also on the BoatUS video team, and writes investigative features for the magazine. He writes BoatUS Magazine’s Consumer Affairs column, is member of the National Association of Marine Surveyors, he’s on ABYC’s tech committees, and has a 100-ton U.S. Coast Guard license. Charles once took his young family cruising for a year, before returning to head up BoatUS’s Consumer Affairs department, helping Members with dispute-mediation when they have consumer issues with marine products. He lives in California, where he’s BoatUS Magazine’s West Coast editor.