Nuances of On Board Communication - SailNet Community
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Nuances of On Board Communication

Some communication, like hand signals from the bowman, transcends language barriers, and thus can be the most effective form interaction when it comes to conveying information on board.
Nearly all endeavors in life involve teamwork, and sailing is certainly no exception. Whether we're cruising or racing, a cornerstone of good teamwork is communication, and in sailing this becomes particularly important for reasons of both efficiency and safety. While we can assume the skipper and crew know some basics in language and terminology, it never hurts to lay the groundwork early before communication breaks down, leading to potential disasters. Because I do a fair bit of international racing—most recently at Key West Race Week with an all-Italian crew aboard a chartered 1D35—I've had the opportunity to consider this topic at length. In this article, I hope to share some thoughts on how you can harmonize communication skills among your crew, which will apply regardless of where they're from and what language they speak.

The first factor to consider is basic language skill—do all the crew speak the same language? As English becomes increasingly universal, it is being spoken by more and more people as a language second to their primary tongue, especially within the globe-trotting world of competitive sailing. It's important to begin by determining who among the crew may be challenged in this regard, and assess the extent to which they possess the same basic vocabulary as everyone else on board. Part of that assessment will include determining to what extent gestures will have to supplement for the use of words. Of course you'll need to become familiar with any possible accents or speech impediments on their part that would otherwise detract from clear communication. Doing this will help you and your crew to avoid the tourist's solution of simply speaking louder to be understood.

While assessing each crewmember's language skills also helps determine how they'll fit into the crew at large, it is particularly important regarding their sub-team within the crew. Having a tactician who cannot communicate well with the mainsail trimmer and/or helmsman will be as challenging as having a pit person handling the halyards who cannot communicate with the person doing the bow.

Does the skipper on your boat say "Ready about?" giving the trimmers a chance to respond, or does he use the more expeditious but less informative "Hard alee?"
The second factor is to agree on which words will be used for basic maneuvers and various important parts on the boat. Even the best crews—and even those that don't include foreign speakers—need to use this baseline of terms in to achieve the most efficient crew work, since there's usually no time to explain things when clear concise communication is needed most. It's important that you don't assume that the same terms are used throughout the world of English-speaking sailors. What we call a "vang" in the US is called a "kicker" Down Under and in the UK, and there are probably as many sailors calling the "foreguy" a "downhaul" as vice versa. Racing sailors can imagine the disaster awaiting when a boat reaching along under spinnaker, about to broach from a huge puff, has the helmsman call for the "kicker" to be released, only to be met with blank stares.

Besides rigging parts, even maneuvers can be choreographed for more efficiency with use of the right language. A trimmer can call for someone operating a winch to "grind" or "trim", but it should be agreed on which term to use. Likewise, helmsman readying the crew to tack will often use a phrase that brings back the days of yore in saying "Har' to lee." That's usually pretty clear, but a better method might be to use a simple prompt of "Ready about?" The latter invites any relevant vetoes on the move, and it's even more productive when followed by a countdown of "3-2-1-Tacking!" as the helm is thrown over and the boat rotates into a tack. It's amazing how simple methods like this can be used to develop and re-create good tacks time after time.

Even the author, above, wants to know whether you'll call "trim" or "grind" to get his attention while he's on the winch.

Of course there are numerous maneuvers in sailing where it is critical to have the crew be on the same page regarding the language used. What comes to mind immediately in the racing arena are spinnaker sets and douses. Here the terms used are less important then who makes the call: does the helmsman call "Hoist!" or "Douse!", or does the tactician or someone else do this? Confusion can lead to a variety of disasters, from the spinnaker filling early before being hoisted to the sail falling into the water and stopping the boat in its place. To avoid potential pitfalls borne of miscommunication it's important to agree beforehand who will be making the call so that the team can be accustomed to hearing the one voice among many that will be directing these moves.

A third factor has to do with the manner in which language is to foster successful teamwork. I've found that creating a sort of on board shorthand system of communication in which the essential terms are distilled down to their essence can help reduce the amount of gesticulation and anxiety, especially if dealing with crew members who aren't proficient in English. Examples include having your time-keeper enunciate the pre-start countdown loudly enough for all the crew to hear (or at least the afterguard if you're on a large boat), but in a measured, non-excitable tone. Upwind, the calls from the rail should sound something like "puff in five...puff in two...puff in one...puff on the bow now," or "bear off for a crab pot in one length...bear off now...OK, now back up," or "layline in three lengths." These are informative, and more importantly, positive calls that direct the trimmers and helmsman to act; they're not just questions that require replies, like "do you see that starboard tacker?"

Sailors talk a lot from boat to boat, and often not much is understood due to the ambient noise on the racecourse. Keep this in mind when you're hailing another boat.

The other element of spoken communication that's important for sailors is the interaction between boats. When boats get close, one will be a right-of-way boat while the other will be a give-way boat under the racing rules, and this can often lead to some dialogue. Even though there are only three hails that are required by the racing rules (can you name them?), this dialogue is still important to prevent misunderstandings during close mark roundings, starts, or crossings. Because of this, it's important to keep in mind that even under the best conditions, it's difficult to hear or be heard clearly from one boat to the next. If you hail a starboard tack boat while your boat is converging on port tack and ask "Tack or cross?" you'll be truly frustrated if the other sailor simply yells back "No." On the water, with all the ambient noise of sails, wind, and waves, "no" can sound suspiciously like "go." It's best if that sailor answers the question using the same phraseology and says either "tack" or "cross," and says it loudly. Of course if that person simply yells back, "Starboard!" the message will probably be pretty clear. And that's the objective of on board communication: clarity.

Likewise, calls for room at mark roundings or obstructions should be simple ("Room to tack!") and hailed loudly enough for all to hear. This also goes for the converse: "No Room!" or "No overlap!"

The last element to consider is communication over the VHF radio. This has become increasingly popular as an important conduit of information between the Race Committee and the fleet, but there are some caveats to consider. Part Three of the racing rules (Conduct of a Race) outlines the requirements for a committee's signals, and mandates that they only be given in visual and audible form, so any radio broadcasts are given as a courtesy and aren't a requirement in most regattas. If they are given, make sure your radio is charged and tuned to the right channel, especially at the starts and between races. And have someone on the crew assigned to listen so that if broadcasts are made they can relate the information to the rest of the crew.

In general, if you feel there are going to be communication issues that will affect your crew's teamwork, spend some time collectively deciding how, when, and specifically what language will be used during maneuvers. Working it out in advance will help reduce confusion when it actually counts, and help solidify the psychological bonds of unity between the crew. Ciao!

Suggested Reading:

Communicating on Board by Betsy Alison

Heavy Air Racing Techniques by Dobbs Davis

An Approach to Self-Coaching by Zack Leonard

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