Anyone traveling with a first mate knows that communication can sometimes be challenging onboard your boat. Learn the right way to communicate to make passagemaking safer.
On this blustery November day, a southwest wind blew and clouds obscured the sun. From across a fairway, I looked up from washing my boat down, and watched a 45-foot twin screw creep into the harbor, the captain furiously working the controls. A first mate stood on the rear deck, with a coiled line in her hands, ready, anxious even, to throw it to a helpful pair of hands. Only there was none, and I was useless to help. While the boat was no more than 100 yards away, it was across a fairway to which I had no access outside of a 10-minute drive around the marina. So I watched.
The captain eased her up to the dock… and the wind blew her away. He backed off, nudged her close to the concrete pier…and again the wind pushed her off. He tried this several times. Each time his face reddened further…and the wind pushed him back. Meanwhile, the first mate stood patiently looking up at the captain and out toward the pier.
Frustrated now, for the next try, the captain gunned the engines and brought the boat into the dock a little harder, then leaned over the flybridge railing and screamed down to his mate, “Honey. Jump!”
The first mate studied the situation. She watched the 5-foot gap between the boat and the dock widen in the wind. She looked up at the captain, scowling down at her now, and yelled, “Honey, you jump!” Then promptly threw the line onto the cockpit deck, slid the rear door open, and marched inside.
And I said to myself, “You go, girl!”
As a trained psychotherapist, some of the worst examples of human communication I’ve witnessed have been aboard boats. I know from at least anecdotal evidence that the best predictor of pleasurable voyages, particularly long passages, is not the wildlife seen, the weather encountered, or the fish caught, but how well the parties on board get along with each other. Read another way, how well they communicate with each other.
The sad truth is that most boaters (OK, let me be brutally honest, most male boaters) communicate better with the Coast Guard controller at the other end of a VHF radio call than they do with their spouse or significant other at the other end of the helm seat. It doesn’t have to be that way. So, in the interest of happy passagemaking I thought that I’d offer a primer on V.H.F. (Very Happy Family) Communications for mariners. I’d also hasten to say that as important as happy passagemaking is, good communication between a vessel’s captain and crew also makes for safer passagemaking. And we should all strive for that.
Your Boat, Your Crucible
With all aboard and the lines cast-off, a boat offers captain and crew little opportunity for escape from each other. Under way your boat is an intimate floating crucible. Most of the time this is exactly what we desire – time alone with loved ones, with family and friends. But unlike your home on land, even when you don’t desire such intimacy on a boat there’s little you can do. Boats are fishbowls. They bring us together because of the smaller spaces we jointly inhabit, and because captain and crew need each other to safely operate a vessel.
Stress is a factor on most voyages. It can come from external events like rough seas, changeable weather, or mechanical challenges. Stress can also come from interpersonal conflicts between crew members: those who do not get along, or those who bring already existing problems with them as extra baggage on the voyage. With added stress this floating crucible can become a heated cauldron, making for a miserable cruise at best and at worst placing the safety of all aboard at risk.
One starship Enterprise had counselor Diana Troy to sort out interpersonal conflicts among the crew. I’m not suggesting that we need an additional crew member for this purpose, but there are some very simple skills that any crew member can learn, and all crew members should practice, that will maximize good communication, and minimize the likelihood that interpersonal conflicts will disrupt the enjoyment and safety of a cruise-whether it’s across an ocean or around the bay.
ALAS – Active Listening At Sea
I’m sure you know that SOLAS stands for Safety of Life at Sea. ALAS, Active Listening at Sea, is my acronym for the most important aspect of good communication among crew members on a boat. ALAS is easy to describe yet often difficult to perform, but with practice, like navigation or close-quarters docking, ALAS can become part of your repertoire of seafaring skills.
The good thing is that most boaters already know the basics of ALAS. We use it every time we initiate or receive a VHF radio call: 1. Wait for an open Channel 16; 2. Announce whom we are and whom we wish to speak with; 3. Negotiate where and how the communication will take place; 4. Listen to the caller; 5. Repeat to the caller what you’ve heard before you respond; and, 6. Conclude the call.
This kind of call with its clear communication between two parties happens thousands of times on the water each day. Just contrast it with the communications between the man and woman negotiating a twin screw into a dock on that blustery day. His communication to her consisted of scowls followed by, “Honey, you jump.”
Now, let’s redo that docking using ALAS. For the sake of this example, let’s assume our couple is on a single screw vessel without a bow thruster. So, when the wind blows the docking maneuver presents even more of a challenge.
- Step 1. Wait for an open channel.Captain: Honey, we’ll be entering the harbor in about five minutes. Let me know when you’re ready for me to begin my docking approach. The captain’s at the helm, which means he or she may not be aware of everything that needs to be taken care of prior to docking. Crew members may need to use the head. Fenders may need to be placed out. Lines retrieved from a lazarette. As captain, asking the crew to tell you when they’re ready, rather than the other way around clears an open channel for good communication.
- Step 2. Communicate what is going to happen. Captain: We’ll be docking in slip B-23, bow-in, starboard tie. If you’ve just called ahead to a marina for a slip, for example, don’t assume the crew members helping you dock know the details of the slip assignment.
- Step 3. Repeat the response, then reply.Mate: Thanks, Sweetie, that’s B-23, bow-in, starboard tie. I’ll get the fenders out and have them ready.
After several unsuccessful docking attempts:
- Step 4. Negotiate a solution.Captain: The wind and current are pushing us harder off the dock than I expected. I’d like to try bringing the stern into the dock close enough for you to step off with a line. Once you’re off, tie the line off quickly.Mate: So, you’ll bring the stern into the dock and I’ll step off to tie down the stern line.Captain: Yes. With the stern tied off, I’ll drive the boat forward with the wheel over hard to starboard to bring the bow in. Then, I’ll need you to grab the bow line and tie it off.
Mate: You’ll drive the boat forward and turn into the dock while I grab the bow line.
Mate: I just checked and the bow line is not in position for me to grab it from the dock.
Captain: Thank you. I understand that the bow line is not where you can grab it. So, I’ll back away from the slip while you prepare all the lines and the fenders. When you’re ready, let me know.
Good communication between captain and crew makes for safer vessel handling. In this example, had the mate stepped off and tied off the stern line before the bow line was handy, the captain would have most likely needed to stay at the helm to control the boat in the current and wind. With the mate on the dock, communications would become more difficult, negotiating a solution more of a challenge. Does she step back aboard to ready the bow line? Does she undo the stern line and they start over again? It’s all precious time spent in conditions when decisive action frequently results in the best outcome. But when that decisive action requires coordination between two parties, clear communication beforehand is what’s needed.
Active Listening – The Underlying Rules
The underlying rules in active listening are very simply stated:
- Attention is focused on the speaker.
- The listener suspends his or her frame of reference and judgment long enough to fully attend to what the speaker is saying.
- It’s important to observe not just the speaker’s words but, when possible, their body language and facial expressions for clues to what they are trying to communicate.
- After hearing the speaker, the listener should repeat back or paraphrase what the speaker said. This doesn’t mean that the listener is necessarily in agreement with the speaker. All the listener is doing is simply restating what the speaker has already said. When emotions run high, active listening can tune into feelings as well as facts. A listener might respond first by stating their impression of the underlying emotions involved: “You seem to feel angry about being assigned this slip.” Or, “You seem to feel frustrated. Is that because the last time we were here we dragged anchor overnight?”
- When it’s time for the listener to become the speaker, and vice versa, the same rules apply.
Skewed Communication Under Stress
Individuals under stress or in conflict often contradict one another, sometimes unintentionally. Captain, let’s say you’ve just rounded a point and entered a rough patch of water. One of your crew, perhaps a family member who’s not had much prior sea time, says , “I’m scared.” Now you’ve been through this area many times before, so your first impulse may be to reply, “There’s nothing to be scared of.” Sounds like you’re trying to help, right? From your point of view, maybe, but not from that of your crew member.
By telling your scared crew member there’s nothing to be scared of, you’ve just denied the validity of his or her feelings, which actually serves to increase the stress and the fear. What your crew member is hearing inside his or her mind is something like this: “My knees are buckling. My stomach’s in knots. I’m white-knuckling the handrail. I’m scared! And the captain’s telling me I shouldn’t be. Must be something wrong with me.” Or, “…Damn him. I don’t care if he thinks I shouldn’t be scared, I am.” This simple miscommunication then becomes a prescription for conflict or gloom.
So, captain, if you check your first impulse and practice ALAS at that moment you might reply, “Art, I hear you’re scared. First time I came through here I was, too. Why don’t you take the wheel? I’ll show you how to steer so we quarter into the seas. That’ll make the ride a little easier on all of us.” Now your crew member feels heard, his or her feelings validated, and you’ve even offered a means of dealing with the fear (see my article, “Navigating Through Fear,” PMM Dec. ’04 for more strategies to cope with fear under way). This increases the likelihood of a happy crew during your voyage.
Active Listening – A Life Skill
Most conflicts are based in misunderstanding, which generally results from poor communication between the parties involved. If more people practiced active listening, we’d have less conflict in our marriages, our families, our communities, our nation, and in the world. If more boaters practiced ALAS, we’d have fewer conflicts when anchoring, docking, or cruising.
A woman in one of my workshops for mariners on couples’ communication, glanced at her husband as she spoke, “If he practiced active listening when we anchored, who knows what would be waiting for him once we were done.” Then she winked. Ah, yes, world peace and love does begin, or end, on your boat.
Clyde W. Ford is a chiropractor, psychotherapist, and noted public speaker. He’s also an award-winning author of nonfiction and fiction. He’s the online editor of the “Books & Boats Blog” at PassageMaker.com. His popular Charlie Noble novels are nautical thrillers set along the Inside Passage. Clyde lives in Bellingham, Washington, and cruises the waters of the Inside Passage in his 30-foot 1977 Willard. His website is www.clydeford.com.