A sampling of comments from some of my cruising friends:

I have always wanted a leather-bound, dog-eared worn out logbook but so far that has not been the case. We kept a logbook on our four years in the Sea of Cortez on board our Lagoon 380. We used it for recording our positions while on passages as well as specific notes and interesting facts about what we saw or experienced, such as whales or the fish we caught. When stationary or in a marina the book was generally not utilized. One interesting thing I started doing in the summer was recording the time of sunset at each anchorage. It was so bloody hot that if you could shave off a few hours of the daylight by snuggling up to a steep cliff, it made a huge difference in the quality of life on board. —PH

I do not keep a logbook. Most likely too A.D.D. to focus that long. —MK

I keep a record of my trips, but it is hardly detailed enough for me to call it a logbook. It is mostly date, destination, travel time, average rpms, and an estimate of fuel consumption. Will also note adding fuel or water. Will sometimes comment on problems/issues, but I can usually just remember them. I use a notebook from my basement office. —AS

I kept my log on my laptop in an Excel file. —KH

I probably should have but we did not keep a formal log cruising the Pacific. I posted to my blog often and kept a log of positions every four hours while doing passages, more for positioning than anything. I kept my blog much more personal and less technical as there were already tons of detailed blogs on the places I went. I did and do keep a maintenance and fuel log, recording all routine maintenance and repairs/replacements. —BC

I have logbooks of virtually every time my boat left the dock starting 1993. I have five logs all full, including our charter voyages to BVIS, USVI, St Lucia, Martinique, and St Vincent. —JM

We used two books, a simple composition notebook where I keep the minimum information. In addition, we used a more comprehensive book, log/travel notes/problems/contacts in a separate, green log. I also could insert charts, lots of drawings, but not if there was nothing to report. So, the true log is the composition notebook. The green logbook is used for maintenance, fuel, and contacts. When we sold the boat, we took the journal pages of the five green logbooks with us but left the composition notebook with all the waypoints and the maintenance and fuel records from the green logs. —MD

From time to time we tried to use logbooks, but never done so for long. Mostly these logs are chronicles of trips we have taken. I’ve tried to do fuel logs, but sooner or later miss entries and it becomes useless. —JE

I assume you’re talking about trip logs, as opposed to maintenance logs. I always keep maintenance logs and do so on an Excel spreadsheet. Regarding trip logs, the story is a little more muddled. When we sailed around the world, we were quite diligent about keeping a logbook. It was homemade, with many parameters. We entered data every hour, although there were a few times when we failed to adhere to that schedule. For other cruises, I always begin with the best of intentions, planning to keep a log for each cruise. I even went out a bought one of those fancy preprinted logbooks from Weems and Plath. Have I actually used it? No. Do I still intend to? Yes. Perhaps with the new boat I will turn over a new leaf and become a diligent logger with entries to my logbook. Time will tell.

The reasons for keeping a log are, first and foremost, about safety. If you lose your electronics, your last position will enable you to know where to start tracking your route on paper charts. Second, it’s a historical record that is useful if you are ever traveling to the same place again, or even if you wish to nostalgically recall your trip. Third is liability. If there is a collision, your logbook may provide you with exculpating information. —BF


What is a Logbook?

As the above comments show, the logbook of a cruising sailor can be most anything, if one keeps one at all. In its purest form, a logbook (aka ship’s log or captain’s log) is a document where one records important information of a boat under way. That information can be as simple as date, time, position, heading, speed, and sea conditions. It can also be much more elaborate.

I liken the logbook to engine room checks. Some boat operators conduct hourly underway engine room inspections, checking the running machinery for leaks, odd sounds, or smells, taking temperature readings, and generally making sure all is fine. Other cruisers make this a once-in-the-morning affair, checking fluids and looking around for anything that looks amiss before getting away from the dock.

(See below: One boater's fuel log in detail.)

boat's fuel log

Recreational boats in the U.S. are not required to maintain a logbook, whereas commercial ships have been required to do so since the beginning of merchant shipping. In the old days before electronics and GPS, the ship’s log was vital for navigation purposes. This purpose has somewhat relaxed in the modern era of satellite navigation, chartplotters, and all the other electronics we have aboard, including our smartphones.

We’ve all seen images of bearded sea captains at their chart table, duly documenting the ship’s progress in a heavy bound book, a record of great value for maritime safety.

Many cruisers use a tablet or computer to keep a log in a spreadsheet or use one of the apps developed as an electronic logbook. After all, most electronics already have the date, time, and position information, and what else is added is easy to do.

Some folks buy those printed logbooks, although I have never been a fan of these books. The companies that make them seem interested in turning a useful logbook into something else entirely, with fields that are completely unnecessary for the purpose of a logbook. I have seen entries for where the fuel fills are located, or where one can find the engine’s oil filter. These books try to do everything, and it is just a waste of page real estate. And some of them are guilty of a real pet peeve of mine, where they provide three inches of lined space to enter one’s home zip code, yet only an inch of space for the owner’s cell phone number.

Some logbooks do more than simply record navigation information and become more like a journal to record interesting information. That might include contact info for people met on the trip, interesting sights and anchorages, fuel prices, condition of marinas, and local information that might be helpful in the future, or comments about the trip at that moment. Some cruisers stop making entries in their logbook when they have reached their next destination, while others continue to record the days ashore.

There is no right way to keep a logbook.

One final note that is vital to know is that when using a book-type logbook, the pages must be numbered, so that pages cannot be removed without being noticed. I will explain shortly about the legal elements of a ship’s log.


What to Record on Your Logbook

So, what information should one enter into the logbook? There is no fixed set of elements to document beyond the basics for navigating foreign waters. It will also depend on whether one is traveling by trawler or sailboat, as the information from power and sail will be somewhat different.

To keep it simple, one might record the date, time, position (lat/lon), heading, speed, distance traveled, wind speed and direction, observation of sea conditions, and perhaps a note of anything noteworthy. Trawlers, cruising powerboats, and sailboats that are motoring will also likely record engine hours and temperature, volts, fuel burn rate, generator hours used, and trip log as recorded on the chartplotter. And comments about anything that broke or needs attention.

For those who want to include everything, one can add state of fuel and water tanks, bilge checks, current sail plan, barometric pressure, visibility, and generally, anything else that can be noted, especially if the watch person will be alerted should an entry change significantly from one hour to the next.

One might also want to keep notes of the passage, as a journal, and I’ve noticed most prefer a separate book or set of pages for this other information. That can be fuel docks and prices, marina information, and general notes.


The Benefits of Keeping a Logbook

The primary reason for keeping a logbook is for safety. Should anything happen, it can serve to provide position information for outside assistance, or to switch to manual navigation if one loses the boat’s electronics. When entries are made every hour, changes in any of the recorded information will immediately be noticed, such as an increase in engine temperature or fuel burn. (We once picked up a piece of plastic tarp on the prop, and the person on watch noticed our fuel burn increased. We stopped, backed up and it came free.

(Seen below: A logbook kept on my friend's Lagoon 380.)

example of logbook

In a way, maintaining a logbook serves a similar function as a dash camera in a car, which can be helpful when something happens. The person on watch can note anything that happens during the night that, while perhaps not critical, will need attention during the next daylight period when more crew is available to investigate.

(An example of this happened while running a big trawler up the West Coast to British Columbia. We had a gale chasing us and on one of my hourly engine room checks during the night I noticed a puddle of white liquid in front of the engine that had not been there before. While everything else looks fine, I noted that in the logbook so that we would remember to investigate the next day when more crew were on hand. It turned out to be milk. A carton had overturned in the galley side-by-side refrigerator, and milk leaked unnoticed out the door and down the cabin sole, where it drained into the engine room. Following the milk as it ran across the overhead in the engine room, it finally landed and pooled in front of the main engine. What a relief!)

Another benefit of having a logbook and/or journal is for the future. When planning another trip to Alaska, for example, the notes and information from a previous trip can be a big help while planning, knowing areas to be extra careful, as well as nice places to visit.

In my mind, the nostalgia element cannot be overlooked. Looking over log entries, pictures, maps, and other notes of trips from long ago brings back wonderful memories. There is no better way to revisit the cruising in one’s past.

Separate logs are best for vessel maintenance, needed repairs, and track intervals for changing filters.


A Legal Perspective

Today, there is no legal requirement to keep a logbook for recreational boating, at least in the United States. The rules and regulations one must follow are dictated by the country flag one flies, which might vary.

To see if there were any legal issues with keeping cruising logbooks, I spoke with Todd Lochner of Lochner Law Firm, P.C. His Annapolis firm operates boatinglaw.com and the company handles maritime cases for recreational and commercial companies, vessels, and operators. Todd is well versed in maritime law and was happy to explain any legal implications of keeping a logbook.

Recreational boating rules and regulations stem from laws created for the commercial shipping industry. It should be no surprise there are many more rules and regulations required for all ships operating in U.S. waters, foreign and domestic. Just look at the large ships in this world today, such as the enormous Evergreen Ever Ace, a container ship that carries over 23,900 containers at one time. Imagine the impact of such a ship having an emergency or disaster.

(Seen below: The Evergreen Ace)

evergreen ace

Commercial ships must maintain logbooks far beyond simple navigation information. There are countless requirements for controls, such as the monitoring and recording the levels in oil/water separators, and numerous other measurements and discharge controls that are regularly inspected by the Coast Guard and other authorities.

Todd made two very important points that directly relate to all cruisers who choose to keep a logbook while cruising.

The first is that every log entry has potential legal significance, so it is illegal to erase or obliterate even a single line entry in a logbook. If changes are necessary, no matter what they are, a single line should be drawn through the entry, so that it can still be read. That is also why every page should be numbered, so no page can be removed.

The reason for this goes back to 1939 in a case where it was decided that “where a logbook has been altered, a court cannot avoid the conclusion that it had been dressed up to excuse the ship’s faults.” There it is, in black and white. If there is ever a situation where the boat is involved in a collision, grounding, or other damaging incident, a logbook becomes part of the legal process. If it has been changed for any reason, the presumption is that it was changed on purpose to avoid something.

The other point that Todd made is a great suggestion for all of us who use modern electronics. He offered this as an example: Every boat is responsible for its wake, as you probably know. And there have been cases where someone sues a boat owner for damages allegedly caused by his boat’s wake. The lawsuit might come a year or more after the alleged incident.

All chartplotters by default keep user data which includes position information, waypoints, routes, and tracks. Todd suggests that once a year, use the card slot in your plotter to copy this user data to a memory card. Then you are free to clear the user data in the plotter if you want to get rid of clutter.

Keep the memory card in a secure location for three years. If you are sued by someone who claims your wake caused injury or damage, a lawyer can use this backup memory card to show that the boat was nowhere near the alleged location at that date and time. Great idea.


Keep a Log for All the Right Reasons

If I planned a major cruise on a boat, I think I would have two books to record the travels. Much like some of the comments from my friends, one would contain just the important information, as discussed. But I would certainly have a second book, a journal, where I wrote much more of the experience, from recipes to phone numbers of people I meet, and details of each stop, marina, and town. I also would shoot lots of pictures and keep these digital images on a backup drive. I can then look back at my cruise and relive the experience, which is almost as enjoyable as being there in real time.

And when the waves are crashing over the bow, and the boat is rolling out of control, it is way more enjoyable to remember it from the comfort of my couch at home, gin and tonic in hand.

“Remember that time Jim was sitting on the head when the porcelain bowl broke as the boat came off a wave on our way to Bermuda?”

Yeah, that was fun.


Here are some additional examples of Logbook entries:

logbook example 1

logbook example 2


Other Cruising Articles Of Interest: