Skip Links

Clear Communication: Can You Hear Me Now?

Precise, nonjudgmental communications between crewmembers is critical for a safe and fun time on the water. (Photo: Billy Black)

Yes, the loving bickering between a couple working together as crew to flawlessly execute a navigational or boathandling maneuver can make for a funny story after the boat is docked. But when things get a little challenging, it may not be all fun and games. The unfortunate truth is that many boating accidents, groundings, collisions, fueling mishaps, and even missing passengers occur because of confusing crew communication. You think you're getting your message across — it's perfectly clear in your mind — but if the message isn't understood, then what you have is a failure to communicate.

Here are a few examples of initially vague statements that could easily result in a disastrous event at worst, or severe embarrassment at best. Clearer communication among crew also makes it easier to avoid hard feelings when one person says something that sounds too judgmental to another. These examples show how clear statements of fact are preferred and promote safety on board. See if they sound familiar.

1. "I smell something funny below."

More precise wording:

"It smells like something may be burning below."

"There is a gasoline smell below. I'll take the wheel so you can check it out."

2. "What is that boat doing over there?"

More precise wording:

"Do you see that boat approaching fast from our starboard bow?"

"Do you see that tug pushing a big barge behind us? It's gaining on us."

"I think the Natural Resources Police has its blue light on behind us."

3. "Maybe you're going a little too fast?"

More precise instructions:

"When you see the red day mark, please slow to 6 knots before the speed zone."

"We appear to be gaining too quickly on the boat ahead. Please slow down to 2,000 rpm and turn gently to port, so we pass on her port side, if it's clear."

4. "Do you have any idea where you are?"

More helpful question:

"Didn't you say that we should see a blinking red light soon? I think I see it slightly to starboard."

"I can take the wheel and let you check our chart and GPS."

5. "Head for those lights over there."

More precise instructions:

"Turn to port, about 20 degrees, and head for the cluster of white lights about half a mile off our port. Do you see them?"

"Please keep your course until you see the red channel marker, then slow to 5 knots. Turn to port toward the dock with all those white lights."

6. "Please check for problems below."

More specific instructions:

"Please open the engine room hatch, look for water, and sniff for fuel."

"Please open the aft propshaft hatch and listen for grinding sounds."

When asking someone on board to do something, face that person for clarity and so you're understood over wind, engine, and ocean sounds. Switch roles every now and then to help your crew get a better appreciation for the tasks at hand; if you usually dock, for instance, then handle the lines for a change.

Clear communication helps everyone enjoy a better time aboard. Then, if things go wrong, you're ready and can save precious seconds instead of struggling to be understood.

Guests And The Language Of Boating

Having guests aboard is part of what makes owning a boat so wonderful — sharing a day on the water with your favorite people. With guests, especially those who don't boat often, you also have a great opportunity to add to their boating experience simply by helping them understand what to expect on their boat ride.

Going over the trip before you leave will help their comfort level and make for a more enjoyable boat ride for everyone. As we know, boating has its own language, and that is part of what should be discussed. For example, if you use words like "helm," "port," "starboard," or other nautical terms, go over them with your guests. Use your knowledge of things you see only on the water to introduce them to the boating culture, the rules of the road, and common courtesy, and maybe impress them with your nautical know-how.

Tell them what things are called on the boat — like the head (not bathroom), bow (not front), stern (not back), port (not left) and starboard (not right). Teaching them what a day mark is, or a buoy, and the difference between red and green ones, or really anything on the water, will not only enrich their trip but it will also reinforce the lesson for you as well.

For a glossary of boating terms or to learn more about your boat and the boating environment, take the free BoatUS Foundation boating course at

What To Say In An Emergency

No matter how much preparation and effort you put into preventing a mishap, bad things sometimes happen on the water. The conversation with crew and guests about how to handle a bad scenario can start well before they even get to the boat. Letting everyone know the weather conditions, your planned itinerary, and any variables that could pop up will help them get ready for the trip.

When they get to the boat, show them how the boat is laid out, what and where things are, and clearly express what your expectations of them are. Getting your guests familiar with the boat and what to expect will cut down on confusion when time is of the essence. More important, it will help you organize your thoughts and reinforce in your mind the proper procedures for what to do in an emergency.

As the captain, your ability to relay information and requests clearly and concisely is the key to getting through an emergency situation like a crew-overboard. Some points to consider in a crew-overboard situation, as an example, would be: Who do you appoint as the observer to keep an eye on the person in the water? Who will throw the flotation cushion or line to the person? How will you tell them what to do? For all the questions that occur in an emergency, having the language down ahead of time may mean the difference between a good story to tell your friends or an experience you'd like to forget.

Now retired from the Maryland Natural Resources Police, Rick Kaufmann of Annapolis has his captain's license. Chris Edmonston is president of the BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water.


Rick Kaufmann & Chris Edmonston

Now retired from the Maryland Natural Resources Police, Rick Kaufmann of Annapolis has his captain's license. Chris Edmonston is president of the BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water and vice president of BoatUS Government Affairs.