Point System for Lookouts

By international law, under the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, vessels are required to have a lookout posted at all times. Though the person is not required to be solely assigned as a lookout, they should at least keep in mind of any lights, ships and objects in general that are in sight of the vessel. The lookout then reports anything they see to the officer on watch (if the vessel crewed as such). However, the trouble with reporting something as to where it is can be difficult (just pointing and saying "Over There!", won't do the job). Thus, a precise way of explaining as to where something is on the horizon must be used, this method is called the point system. Another more modern way of keeping other vessels in check however is magnetic bearings. Other ways, somewhat less specific to sailing include hours on a clock (ie "Shallow rocks at 2 o'clock.") and relative positions. These more modern ways are probably as effective if not more so than the point system(I'd say that using radar would be more effective), however, historically the point system was used.

The point system, in sailing larger vessels such as tall ships, is very important when it comes to identifying where something or someone else is on the water. The diagram below shows a basic outline of a ship, along with points which can be seen on the water as to where something might be. Also, the rest of this node will mostly be geared towards tall-ships with a full crew.

                                Port                                     Starboard
                                                  _                           _     
                                                 |            1 DA 1           |
                                      1----------|        2     ||     2       |----------------1
                                                 |_    3        ||         3  _|
                                              _     BPB         ||         BSB    _
                                             |     3           /  \           3    |
                                      2------|    2           /    \           2   |------------2
                                             |_  1           |      |           1 _|
                                              _  PB----------| SHIP |----------SB _
                                             |   1           |      |           1  |
                                       3-----|    2          |      |          2   |------------3
                                             |_    3          \____/          3   _|
                                                   _PQ          ||          SQ_
                                                  |    3        ||        3    |
                                       4----------|       2     ||     2       |----------------4
                                                  |_          1 DA 1          _|


  • DA(upper)- Dead Ahead, directly in front of the vessel
  • DA(lower)-Dead Astern, directly behind the vessel.
  • BSB-Broad on the Starboard Bow, 45 degrees starboard of Dead Ahead.
  • SB-On the Starboard Beam, a 90 degree angle starboard of Dead Ahead.
  • SQ-Broad on the Starboard Quarter, a 45 degree angle starboard of Dead Astern.
  • BPB-Broad on the Port Bow, a 45 degree angle port of Dead Ahead.
  • PB-On the Port Beam, a 90 degree angle port of Dead Ahead.
  • PQ-Broad on the Port Quarter, a 45 degree angle port of Dead Astern.
  • 1- One point in whatever direction being referred to.
  • 2- Two points in whatever direction being referred to.
  • 3- Three points in whatever direction being referred to.

When pointing out a specific object on the horizon, you might say "There is a green light three points abaft the starboard beam." If you were to say this, you would be describing the third point, in the third section, on the starboard side. Knowing exactly what the object is isn't necessary and is in fact discouraged. In the time that it might take a lookout to identify what an object is, another could come into sight. It is best to tell the officer on watch the moment you see something. The general "formula" for telling the officer on watch where something is on the horizon is as follows...

Description of Object + Point Number + Section and Side of Vessel it is on

If the object is in between two of the sections, a point number is not necessary (ie Dead Ahead or Dead Astern). In this case you would just say "A red light dead astern." Each three point section refers to a specific part of the horizon, and has a "label," which describes exactly where you are implying. Below are the labels for each section which are used when describing where something is on the horizon.

  • First Sections- on the port/starboard bow
  • Second Sections- forward of the port/starboard bow
  • Third Sections- abaft the port/starboard bow
  • Fourth Sections- on the port/starboard quarter


The role of a lookout aboard any vessel, especially larger ones such as tall-ships is a very important one. However this job can also become the most monotonous one of all. Spending an hour or so straining your eyes out onto the horizon isn't the most fun thing to be doing. In terms of the entire vessel, a lookout must be on watch at all times, day and night. When being relieved of the duty of lookout, you should pinpoint all the objects currently on the horizon to the next lookout and make sure that they recognize each one. For a random piece of knowledge, a single point in the point system is eleven and a quarter degrees on a compass.