Verbal Commands: Arcane or Cool? - SailNet Community
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post #1 of 44 Old 4 Weeks Ago Thread Starter
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Verbal Commands: Arcane or Cool?

Many years ago in another sailing forum, a debate emerged regarding the value of using clear and concise verbal commands while tacking. While many comments reflected the common variety of Ready About, Tacking, etc., even more commenters treated such commands with contempt. Kind of like the class conflicts between the flannel wearing, uniformed yacht club crowd and the "rest of us" with affordable boats. Essentially, they suggested that cool skippers didn't put on such airs and pretensions and certainly would never say, "Helm's a lee!"

While training in my old age to be a certified sailing instructor, I've observed that clear commands are still taught to new sailors. I've also observed newly schooled crews tend to expect clear commands when out with me on my boat. But I've also observed that "everyone", especially old sailors, complains about the crowds of unskilled skippers out there who don't know what they are doing. Investigating that a bit, I found that it was old sailors complaining about other old sailors. In other words, even the complainers didn't know what they were doing (in the eyes of others). And the execution of maneuvers was consistently bad (in my observations) by both the complainers and the mobs.

While growing up sailing, my family and friends all used standardized commands all the time. So the old sailors mockery of such commands surprised me. I train new sailors with traditional standards. But is there a culture out there that I'm not part of that thinks verbal commands are stuffy and old-school? When I read that decades old online discussion, it gave me the impression that I was in the minority. But it seems to me that sharp sailing skills come from clear expectations and commands.

I'm happy living in my own little bubble, but I also am curious about the real world...

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Last edited by CaptainFaris; 4 Weeks Ago at 01:25 PM.
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Re: Verbal Commands: Arcane or Cool?

I've generally found that only one command is really, needed, and I might say "helms alee" for variety! Anything so that the guy on the winch, with his back to me, knows we're starting to turn, right now, and not just adjusting course. Or I might say "here we go" or "tacking" or jibing. Something.

As for the rest of the commands, if we sail together a lot there isn't much else to say, other than "I think we should tack in a few minutes" and "ready?" They know the procedure through the tack and accelerating afterwords. As the helmsman, if I spot something hanging up that they havn't seen, I'll say something and adjust the turn as needed. If I have a newby I will have explained the procedure and checked that the winches were properly prepared and the lines flaked.

Basically, good tacks are EASIER than bad tacks.
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Re: Verbal Commands: Arcane or Cool?

I am a little agnostic on this. When I am teaching new sailors I explain origins and meanings of the terms and use the terms. But I lose no sleep if the correct terms are used or not used. Some of it is context. Racing tends to be less formal with the sequence that the word gets spread to the crew that we are thinking of tacking, then typically the helmsman or tactician will say, "Positions", then "Ready", and once the key players reply "ready" the order initiating the tack is given but it will vary between "going", "helm down", "hard alee", "tacking" and "now" depending on the skipper and situation. Often there are modifierss spoken between prepare to tack and the final command such as "holding, Holding, Holding" or "Not yet" or "This will be a slow (or a quick) one". Cruising I tend to casually say, "we are going to tack shortly" and then "helms down". Single-handing I usually think, "time to go". Except single-hand I always use the "prepare to jibe" and "jibing"

I personally like using the historic language for the parts of a boat, and other sailing terms. I have never seen them as having a pejorative connotation that is somehow associated with the blue blazer crowd. Historically, these terms were widely used in working watercraft as well as yachts which in my mind makes them more blue collar than blue blazer. And while these terms may seem archaic, or formal, they do provide a clear and consistent instruction which many of the other terms do not.

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Re: Verbal Commands: Arcane or Cool?

I’m in a sailing club that has little day sailors and racing dinghies. Part of the mission of the club is teaching new people to sail, and our club policy is to use verbal commands. And the policy is for all teachers to use the same commands, so there is consistency of instruction. Thus I find myself saying “Ready about” and “Helm’s a-lee!”

I gotta say, I think “Helm’s a-lee” sounds a little silly. When sailing on my own I will say “coming about,” “tacking,” or “flopping.” Or nothing at all. Depending on crew and conditions you don’t actually have to say anything.

When my wife started coming along on sailing trips the term “fall off” really bugged her. She is of the opinion that when on a boat, falling off should be avoided. I appreciate her logic, so I now say “head up” and “head down.”
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Re: Verbal Commands: Arcane or Cool?

For us, sailing with people who are mostly unused to boats, my wife and I have developed a system that, our guests, even if they don't speak English, understand that something significant is about to happen when I stand up and take the leeward sheet in one hand and say, "Stand by to come about." and "Hard a-lee."
I've no idea where most of the women on Women Who Sail get the idea that sailing is so quiet, but on Skipping Stone, sailing to weather in 20 to 30 knots is hardly quiet! There's the water passing by the boat at 7 to 9 knots with the occasional wave slamming into the hull (and maybe drenching us), the wind howling through the rig and at times the flapping of sails. Well anyway, because the noise level can often be pretty high, I always use exactly the same commands so that my partner will have no confusion about what it is I am saying, at that point.
Now, to hijack this thread a tiny bit, would someone please tell me what so many people feel they must communicate vocally while anchoring? Some even spend big boat bucks on headsets! Are they listening to books on tape while anchoring or docking?
The person forward needs to know the depth, easily indicated by the helmsperson, a finger or 5, and when to drop, on our boat a thumb's down. Same with docking. The helmsperson puts the boat alongside so the line handler can easily step ashore, and Bob's your uncle, you have a spring line on and the boat is now under control, no matter the wind or current. Maybe a few fingers help to indicate the distance the bow is away from the dock, but those ugly screaming scenes make no sense to me. And they are rather uncomfortable to watch, aren't they?
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Re: Verbal Commands: Arcane or Cool?

Think if you’re on a boat and NO commands are necessary you have great crew. It means everyone on the boat is engaged and situationally aware.
To decrease expense went halvzies on several different boats with the same co owner. It was rare if ever a command was required. He (or I) would start to throw the wheel over and the other would free and ease the prior working sheet and take in the other sheet. Not a word spoken. Start heading down wind ease the sheet reposition the car. No command necessary.
When ocean racing there was a running conversation about trim interposed with whatever else we were talking about. Only command was some variation of “ok let’s try that”.
At night the command was “time to reef” or whatever evolution was required.
See nothing wrong with “ready about”. Ready. Hard to lee.
But also see nothing wrong with”do you think we should move the car back a little back, want to take in the main 6”?, let’s try more vang. In short what ever clearly communicates the task required and timing.
Still like a quiet boat the best with the fewest commands uttered.
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Re: Verbal Commands: Arcane or Cool?

As I single hand... or wifey doesn't do sailing activities I basically explain to her what I am going to do.... she knows what tacking and gybing are...So I alert her by saying... we're going to tack or gybe... or reef the main... She helps get the main down in flakes and can pick up a mooring and that's about it... aside from watch...

We don't do racing and usually I have plenty of time to tack or gybe and give lots of warning it's coming up. On a crewed boat and especially in a race... calling this out may make sense... not so for how I sail.

Anyone who single hands is not going to be shouting commands to no one.

pay attention... someone's life depends on it

Last edited by SanderO; 4 Weeks Ago at 06:51 PM.
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Re: Verbal Commands: Arcane or Cool?

So far, I recognize my own point of view in all of your comments. It's a practical matter more than a "coolness" issue. I use "Prepare to come about" so that the word "ready" as a response isn't confused with it. I say Helm's alee because the helm has been thrown alee. Now that I've learned to back the jib on tacks, I say "crossing" to provide extra input to a trimmer who might still be looking at the winch and tangles so that releasing can be timed more precisely.

Even when everyone is both expert crew and regular partners I "feel" that standard commands frees our minds from each having to think about timing when we're in the middle of whatever philosophical discussion we're having while approaching the layline. I anticipate teaching racing tactics mostly as a perfectionist's approach to cruising. Of course, when skipper I'm intently focused on tactics for the fun of it and the competitiveness, but I like to have a metaphysical "one with nature" aura hovering over the boat instead of Ahab's mood in chasing the white whale.

Hand signals while anchoring or docking probably could be standardized a bit more, but if I could afford it I'd use headsets simply because I like to look around for SA when at the helm. While coastal cruising I've started having extra crew near the cockpit to verbally tell me what the hand signals are just for that reason.
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Re: Verbal Commands: Arcane or Cool?

Dont get caught up in the details/weeds/trees. Thats when some people say..enough.
Teaching newbies is different than real life.
All that matters is the end result
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Re: Verbal Commands: Arcane or Cool?

I think it depends on context. My wife and I have sailed together so much, and we fully split duties. Whoever is at the wheel releases the jib sheet, and the other grinds. The only conversation is something like, I think I'll tack now. The other person goes over to the winch as says OK. Then the helms person turns the wheel. When we have guests, no need to interrupt the conversation, unless they want to play. If they do, I usually start them on the wheel, it's easier, then if they are interested, teach them to grind. No formal language, more like "ready?" and taking a look to see the wrapped the sheet the right way, etc.

When we talk about lines, we do use the right terms. When we talk about direction we do use port and starboard. But we don't need to talk much, too many years.


And let me strongly agree with capta. ABSOLUTELY no words spoken when anchoring. We stay in the cockpit and discuss the plan quietly and perhaps motor by the spot. I casually walk forward, she maneuvers back to the "spot" and brings the boat to a halt. I lower the anchor. Hand signals only including pointing where to go, fingers for RPMs in 100's in reverse to gradually set, closed fist for neutral, etc. All signals given casually, particular singular fingers avoided . When set and snubbed, walk back to the cockpit and enjoy the show over cocktails as others arrive.

It's not how you anchor, it's how you look (and sound). Same thing approaching docks. Plan first, vocalize in the rare occasion that you need to change the plan.

That said, I suppose in a school situation, or a yacht club or race when the crews change a lot, etc, common language might be helpful.
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