It might have been misconstrued that I am anti-checklist, which is not the case. In fact, I’m a firm believer in a checklist’s potential value. But that value is contingent on several factors, and not all checklists are created equal.

The modern safety checklist was born primarily out of the desire to improve aviation safety as complexity increased and the demands placed on pilots became excessive and sometimes led to tragedy. Checklists have a broadly proven track record of helping humans avoid some of the more common but serious (dumb) mistakes that often lead to trouble.

I’m all for checklists, as long as they’re specific, concise, accurate, easy to understand, and fully relevant to the task at hand. Checklists are usually works-in-progress, so it takes time to arrive at the point of relevancy. Early drafts of checklists seldom hit the mark. 

Assuming that the criteria have been met and vessel personnel have been trained in a checklist’s use and convinced of its value, the checklist must not be forgotten. To maintain its usefulness, checklists must be subject to regular review and updated as needed.

So, did you actually test the steering system? Both pumps? All of the steering stations? If you didn’t, how do you know that they work? If your answer is “well, they worked the last time,” then besides being negligent, you’re relying on fool’s luck. 

The same goes for all of the critical gear and systems we use and rely on: radios, radar, GPS, depth sounder, search light, navigation lights, etc. These critical items won’t check themselves and won’t provide a convenient and comfortable advance warning of impending failure. In short, checklists can save us from ourselves.

For more on the subject, check out “The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right,” by Dr. Atul Gawande. In it, Gawande shows what the simple idea of the checklist reveals about the complexity of our lives and how we can deal with it.