Gaining an Understanding


Regardless of what you’re trying to accomplish as a team or crew, clear communications is central to success  (published March 2016)

Anchored off a lee shore the wind began to build around 2:00 a.m. The catamaran’s anchor had been well set in good holding ground, but as the seas stacked up, the sunbaked bridle holding the chain snapped. Lia Ditton and I raced on deck as the chain began to hammer and chafe against the fairlead at the bow. Only one month ago, it again became evident that clarity in the face of adversity would be called upon to effectively solve problems. If we were to understand each other and coordinate our actions, we would need to face each other when talking to be heard over the blast of the wind.

Complex or rarely encountered situations often require some amount of conversation in order to sort out problems. Solutions and alternatives can be discussed, and an optimal response to the situation can be quickly achieved if the communication is clear and everyone involved has an understanding of both the problem and the proposed solution. Facing the person being addressed is central to achieving the necessary clarity, especially when the wind is blowing hard or people are separated by a distance. Simpler tasks or actions that are more commonly encountered can often be done in complete silence, relying on visible hand signals that everyone understands.

In earlier situations we have managed to hoist storm sails with minimal audible communications. With the various crew members at their positions, the bowman checked to make sure everyone was ready. Thumbs up, ready to go. The old sheet eased, the headsail was dropped to the deck, collected and secured with sail ties. The storm jib, already hanked on and standing by at the base of the headstay, was hoisted, halyard tensioned properly and trimmed on. The old sail was now dragged aft and folded. We were ready for the heavy weather. The sail change had gone off without a hitch. In fact, it went off without a word. Clear and concise directions, understood by everyone despite the raging wind, were given using hand signals.

Hand signals are not a new concept. Whether by hunters stalking game, squad leaders in combat situations, or construction workers directing a crane operator, hand signals have been used for many centuries to coordinate group actions. Properly used, they can be effective in conditions in which yelling can be ineffective, misunderstood or inappropriate. Quiet, but clearly understandable signals can greatly enhance on-deck communication aboard a sailboat in a gale, or on a foredeck lit by spreader lights during a quiet night in the tropics.

The successful use of hand signals will be dependent on how simple they are to convey and how readily understood they are by all concerned.  Effective communication requires that both the “sender” and the “receiver” of the information understand the same meaning of the signal, and the correct interpretation of that signal should be confirmed by the “sender” so there is no confusion.

As an example, when the bowman on the boat is ready to have the headsail hoisted, he may indicate the hoist by pointing his index finger towards the masthead and circling with his finger, in essence “wind up the halyard”. If it becomes necessary to stop the hoist, he should hold up a clinched fist instead of his finger, signaling “hold it” or “stop the hoist”.  To resume the hoist, he would point again towards the masthead and move his finger in a circling motion. And to lower a sail, he would point down with his index finger and again move the finger in a circling motion, indicating “wind it down”.

After the sail is up and the luff properly tensioned, the bowman might point directly at the clew of the sail and circle his finger to let others know that they may trim the sail on: “wind on the sheet”.  At night, if someone goes forward to check the trim of the headsail and an ease in the sail is required, the person checking the trim would point to leeward several times to signal that the sail should be let out. When the sail trimming is completed, he can indicate to “hold” the trim by raising a clenched fist or “ok” by looping his index finger with his thumb.  At night, of course, the ability to see is impaired by the darkness. Lighting up the hand signals or using a red light to signal can overcome the problem with darkness.

As the helmsman steers towards a mooring buoy, the person on the bow should indicate the location of the buoy by pointing at the buoy.  Last month, while anchoring and picking up the anchor, Lia indicated the position of the anchor and chain by pointing so the helmsman wouldn’t overrun the chain. Continued pointing directly at the anchor or buoy will indicate to the helmsman how he or she is approaching and whether they will either need to steer more to starboard or to port in order to properly close with the buoy.  If the bowman sees that steering in a particular direction is required, they can point one way or another with their thumb. Beckoning with the index finger means forward.  Pointing aft repeatedly means reverse, and a clinched fist means “hold” or “stop”. When the maneuver is completed, the bowman should indicate “ok”. The helmsman then knows that the engine can be put in neutral, and the vessel is on the mooring.

Simple, concise instructions can be given with hand signals, but those hand signals need to be clearly seen by the other parties. They should be held high over other crewmembers’ heads. They should be out of the shadows and out from behind sails. At night, the signals should be in the light, whether provided by spreader or foredeck lights or by lights used by the crew.  Headlights or flashlights used by the crew should not be pointed at other crewmembers since that serves more to confuse than clarify. Lights shined directly in others’ eyes can temporarily blind the afflicted crew member, and that action can be especially distracting to the helmsman.bottom hands

Hand signals are only one example of on-deck communications. Naturally, most of us are more accustomed to using voice commands or dialogue to make ourselves understood. But even speaking to one another can lead to misunderstandings.

Verbal directions need to be clear, concise, and loud enough to be heard by the others in the crew. It may be necessary to have a designated person relay the information if the vessel is large or the background noise from wind or engines is loud. Rather than having several voices shouting potentially conflicting instructions, it’s far better to have one or two parties responsible for clearly relaying instructions. Speaking loudly is different from shouting. The former is meant to clearly send information, provide reassurance, and maintain a degree of respect for the person being spoken to. The latter can easily be misinterpreted to convey panic or anger towards the person being spoken to. “Please” and “thank you” in the verbal instructions go a long way towards keeping the communication positive and reassuring while keeping it clearly understood that loud verbal instruction is not misunderstood as verbal abuse.

Confirmation of a task completed is important to clarify the situation to everyone. “The luff tension is fine”, “The bow line is secured”, or “Hold the trim” will tell the others that they can get on with their own set of tasks whether that is trimming, putting the engine in neutral or laying out the sheet tail in a figure eight so that it is ready to run.

Mumbled instructions or confirmations are frustrating to all concerned. The instructions are misunderstood. The actions taken are sometimes inappropriate, and the result can be confusion or accidents. Speaking should be clear and in a language understood by all of the concerned individuals. Perhaps most importantly, the person doing the speaking should be facing the people he is talking to so that they can most clearly hear and understand him. All too frequently a trimmer may be facing forward while trying to tell the helmsman aft something of importance.  Or the bowman, struggling with a sail while looking forward, tries to tell the helmsman that he needs to come up or down on his course. Facing the person while speaking loudly and clearly will significantly help to improve communications and reduce confusion.

There are occasions when no amount of yelling can effectively communicate a complicated topic.  Conversing from the masthead is difficult in the best of circumstances; in a gale, it is virtually impossible. Similarly, talking between a bowman and a helmsman on a large vessel can be severely restricted to the simplest of topics if they each have to remain at their stations. If detailed explanations are required, electronic means of communication may help to solve the problem of distance or background noise.
two way radios
Handheld VHF radios have long been used by crew on shore to call people aboard an anchored boat to request a pickup in the dinghy. Similarly, a handheld VHF can be taken aloft or forward to communicate back to the deck or cockpit if people at those positions are similarly equipped.  Even more convenient in many situations, voice activated, headset microphones for small two way radios allow for hands-free use over a limited range.  Rather than relying on a push-to-talk button, the voice activated mics transmit when a certain level of volume is detected. In windy conditions, it may be necessary to set the sensitivity rating down so that the radio is not constantly transmitting background noise and running its batteries down.  But the fact that hands are free to hold on or undertake other tasks can be a significant help for someone speaking from the masthead or trying to converse while driving.

Loud-hailers provide another electronic means of communication.  But, unlike the two way radio, loud-hailers only allow for efficient one-way communication. If the loud-hailer is in a fixed location, its usability is further reduced.  Its advantage is that when it’s in use, everyone knows the information being conveyed.

On-deck communication can be greatly simplified and confusion avoided if, prior to the execution of a maneuver, the tasks are assigned to specific individuals and discussed in a group.  Regardless of the task, whether you are preparing to anchor, hoist a sail, jibe or reef the main, discussing it beforehand increases the probability that it will come off without a hitch.  Allow enough time for questions to be asked so that everyone understands his or her responsibilities. Changes may need to be made during the execution of the maneuver, but starting out with clarity vastly simplifies the communications required during that maneuver.

During the question period of the discussion, if anyone thinks they will have trouble performing their task, whether that is lifting the anchor or controlling the headsail on the foredeck, provide a suitable resolution to the problem prior to initiating the maneuver.  Find someone stronger or additional help to handle the anchor or help hold down the headsail.  Eliminating the problem early helps to simplify the maneuver as well as the communication necessary to complete the task.

Whether you’re trying to sort out an anchor chain, set a storm jib in heavy weather or merely trying to make it possible for the off-watch to sleep on a quiet night in the tropics, clear communications on board your sailboat can be kept quiet and orderly.  Getting your point across can be quite simple as well as civilized.

Author: Blue Water Sailing