Airline pilots use them. Surgeons use them. So we think it makes sense for sailors to use checklists for safety.

We are rather obsessive about lists, as our sailing companions will tell you. But how many different lists are useful, and for what? Here are the main ones we use:

On paper:

  • Joining and leaving checklist (printed and laminated, kept in chart table – see photo)
  • Pre-departure checklist (on paper, easily to hand – previously this was in our heads)
  • An extra paper list as needed daily e.g. our food shopping list is always on paper!

On phones/tablets:

  • Nova jobs (an ongoing general task list, with highest priorities at the top)
  • Nova shopping (not daily food, but other boat and personal related)
  • Weekly checks (engine, rig, gas level etc – we only have one gas bottle!)
  • Winter/spring jobs (this can be resurrected each year)

The electronic lists have the advantage that they can be synchronised between devices (in this case we both have iPhones and there are two iPads on board Nova). That means either of us can mark things as completed.

Nova’s joining and leaving checklist

What do you do before setting sail?

The latest list we’ve created is the pre-departure checklist. Previously we kept this in our heads, but we find that with a tired mind, or when we’re in a hurry, things get missed. Here’s our list:

  • Daily engine checks
  • Hatches & Catches
  • Sandwiches & coffee (flask)
  • Stugeron and Sun Cream
  • Transfer waypoints to plotters (we enter them on an iPad)
  • Prepare sails (we attach the main halyard, ready to go)
  • Electrics off (anyone ever forgotten to unplug from the mains?!)
  • Instruments and bow thruster on (yes we have one! Mainly used going slow astern)
  • Inform KMH (and/or use RYA SafeTrx)

There are still some things we do from memory rather than having a list. For example, daily engine checks (prompted by the pre-departure checklist) are so familiar and quick that a list wouldn’t help, and I find the sight of the engine itself prompts all the right checks as well as an overall visual inspection, which I occasionally do on passage too.

There are also some obvious things we do ahead of time (e.g. water, fuel, writing a passage plan onto our own document template) so this checklist is for use immediately before we embark.

Our list is short, so we actually use it. Before a long or tricky passage I sometimes use the RYA Safetrx app which includes a pre-departure checklist. The problem is, it is so enormous and complex it made me feel completely inadequate and I soon realised I would not go sailing if I attempted to complete it. However it does contain useful reminders and I found it can be edited, so I’ve edited it down to remove things that aren’t relevant. That leaves 42 items (see screenshot!) So I use those as a memory-jogger weekly and before major passages, rather than before every trip. Also I simply scan the list rather than try to tick them all off. (If you want to edit the list, you need to start creating a ‘sail plan’ on the app, and there’s an edit button when you get to the checklist page).

Some of the remaining 42 items (after paring down!)

Do you use the RYA Safetrx app?

The RYA app would be brilliant apart from three practical flaws:

  • First, it doesn’t seem to be possible to prepare it in advance and save the passage, ready to submit (e.g. when leaving early in the morning). So you have to re-enter the details just before setting off.
  • Secondly if we are overdue it issues a safety text to my shorebased contact (that’s my sister). That sounds sensible but in practice it is common to have a slight delay in arrival plus a long time getting moored up or anchored, so it is easy to forget to mark the passage as ‘complete’ and trigger an alert unnecessarily. This has resulted in me entering much longer passage times than we are actually expecting, which would delay a real alert. It would be useful if the app detected safe arrival and automatically completed the passage.
  • Finally and fatally it consumes a lot of power if it is running in the background during a passage, which itself creates a hazard (I need my phone to work!). I think I’ve solved that by preventing it logging our phone-sourced position (on an iPhone go to settings >privacy >location services then find the RYA app and set to ‘While Using’ not ‘Always’).

In practice, because we have AIS that transmits our position continuously and doesn’t rely on the Internet, we find that’s the most useful tool to ensure people know where we are. We text my sister to say when and where we are going. She then receives automated departure and arrival emails/SMS from MarineTraffic (30 free per month although there have been some technical glitches and we are also testing VesselFinder). And at any time she and others following us can see when we’ve safely arrived.

Do let us know how you use checklists, what you think about ours, any other suggestions so we can keep learning and improving.


On our passage ‘Around These Islands’ Anne is writing about each trip, and Jonathan is writing some more ‘technical’ blogs, from our perspective as ordinary cruising sailors. We are sharing what we’ve learned, and welcome your thoughts too. Please remember that this blog – and your comments – are public.

There’s also a special focus on 12 key ports on our planned route, with articles from These Islands and a series of podcasts from Chrome Media called ‘Around These Islands in 12 Ports’.


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