Crew Communication Improves Boating Safety

Effective crew communication using hand signals is essential to good seamanship.

The Need to Communicate
In any event, always make sure to close the communication loop by replying to the initial signal with the “OK” signal or a thumbs up.Tim Bower

It’s essential to good seamanship that you communicate with your crew effectively. The ability to instantly convey meaning and intent may mean the difference between a textbook maneuver that’s hardly worth the mention and one that becomes regrettably memorable due to personal injury or damage to the boat. Let’s take a look at some situations to further illustrate the point.

There are a number of ­scenarios in which you may need to give a crew member on the bow some direction. Anchoring, docking, or picking your way through a mooring field in the fog all come to mind. But even aboard a small boat where the distance between the foredeck and the helm is just a few feet, it can be difficult to make yourself understood to a person on the bow. Wind in the ear of the deckhand, coupled with the fact that you are behind a windshield and possibly surrounded by canvas, almost guarantees that the skipper needs to repeat herself two or more times until the correct volume level of yelling is attained.

There is a better way: hand signals.

Especially worthwhile with regular crew, such as your spouse or children, I strongly advise a pre-arranged, pre-agreed upon set of simple gestures to convey meaning. Aboard my own Breakaway, and aboard other boats on which I've served as crew, we use the following signals while anchoring. A thumbs up means "drop the anchor, we've begun to fall back on the current." Raising a closed fist while streaming out the anchor rode means "stop," "enough" or "hold up." A twirled finger means "cleat it off."

Of course, these signals can go from bow to helm as well as from helm to bow. So if, after the anchor is dropped, the bow crewman sees that the boat is overrunning the rode, he can give a wave to the skipper, meaning — you guessed it — “back down a bit, you’ve still got some way on.” When all is right, the raised fist can indicate “enough.” (Note that when creeping through that fog-bound harbor — if given with wide eyes and extra emphasis — it might mean “stop … there’s a big white boat anchored 30 feet in front of us right next to the buoy, so it will fool you on radar!” So always “listen” to the signals.)

Other bow-to-helm situations in which hand signals prove useful come to mind. Often, when pulling anchor, as the boat gets closer to the anchor’s position, the skipper at some point may lose sight of the anchor rode as it slips from view below the bow. At this point, line may still need to be retrieved, and, in order to do so, the boat must be carefully nudged forward in the direction the line is running. A knowledgeable deckhand realizes the point when the skipper can no longer see the line, and, while facing forward and keeping an eye on the line, he must become the skipper’s eyes. The signals are not complex; if the boat needs to be steered to port, the crewman can point to the left, for instance. This is done with one hand while the other remains on the rode (or while a turn is taken about a cleat if a current is running). In this way, hand signals not only prove effective, their use builds and depends upon trust between the crew.

In any event, always make sure to close the communication loop by replying to the initial signal with the “OK” signal or a thumbs up.

Now, suppose we are ­approaching a dock. We’d assess the situation, judging wind and current, and, perhaps, we’d ready some dock lines, maybe even pre-cleating a spring line and hanging some fenders. Maybe we’d task those aboard to handle each of those and get the boat hook at the ready.

How about unzipping a panel of canvas? Or opening a vent window, if your boat is so equipped? I know it’s not part of any docking procedure found in any textbook, but I also know that if we don’t do that, we may not hear the dockhand warning us about the bolt protruding a foot below the water from the piling we are heading toward to snuggle against and tie up.

Hand signals and unzipping canvas may seem like overly simple techniques to ensure safer, smoother boat operation. But if my experience aboard boats and at docks is any indication, these are not as obvious to some boaters as many of us might think. Stay safe.