SEAMANSHIP

Soundings - - Contents - BY CAPT DANIEL S. PARROTT

Good com­mu­ni­ca­tion is im­por­tant in all walks of life, but it’s par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant on recre­ational boats, where the safety of pas­sen­gers will de­pend on it.

Hey, cap­tain, sorry to wake you. Uh, the lat­est weather came in, and I thought you might want to take a look at it. So, yeah, if you have a chance. Just look­ing at the fore­cast and our track line. Thought you might want to take a look at it.”

This was the third mate aboard the doomed freighter El Faro, call­ing down to the cap­tain’s cabin on the night of Septem­ber 30, 2015. The mate was try­ing to alert the cap­tain that Hur­ri­cane Joaquin had strength­ened sig­nif­i­cantly and was now on track to in­ter­cept the ship.

The cap­tain held a dif­fer­ent view of the sit­u­a­tion, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for him to imag­ine the mag­ni­tude of these devel­op­ments. He did not come to the bridge. At the time of this con­ver­sa­tion, there were op­tions. Eight hours later, there weren’t, and the ocean swal­lowed the nearly 800-foot El Faro with all hands aboard.

One mantra of com­mu­ni­ca­tion in a func­tion­ing hi­er­ar­chy is that in­for­ma­tion must some­times be pushed to where it will do the most good. Clearly, this did not hap­pen aboard the El Faro. The mate’s def­er­en­tial in­vi­ta­tion to view the weather re­port at the cap­tain’s con­ve­nience re­vealed a flaw found in many pro­fes­sional set­tings: a sub­or­di­nate with cru­cial in­for­ma­tion who fails to get the mes­sage through to a leader who is in­suf­fi­ciently re­cep­tive to the con­cerns.

Good com­mu­ni­ca­tion is a chal­lenge in all walks of life, in­clud­ing on a recre­ational boat. The re­laxed at­mos­phere of a yacht may even in­vite chal­lenges not found in other set­tings. Boat­ing is a so­cial ac­tiv­ity; no one is be­ing paid, and ev­ery­one wants to have fun. In­for­mal­ity is ap­pro­pri­ate, but with it comes a ten­dency to com­mu­ni­cate with hints or sug­ges­tions, rather than com­mands. No skip­per wants to in­vite be­hind-the-back com­par­isons to Capt. Bligh or Queeg, and guests don’t want to look fool­ish in their in­ex­pe­ri­ence.

More­over, re­la­tion­ships with those aboard—spouses, chil­dren, par­ents, sib­lings, col­leagues, co- own­ers, friends— are of­ten freighted around mat­ters of au­thor­ity and ex­per­tise. These back­ground is­sues shape the sub­stance and style of com­mu­ni­ca­tion up and down what is al­ready a fairly amor­phous chain of com­mand. The bot­tom line: Mis­un­der­stand­ing is far eas­ier to achieve than peo­ple know.

When there is lit­tle at stake, we can af­ford to be po­litely im­pre­cise. In some sit­u­a­tions, it might be fine to say, “Would you mind tak­ing the helm for a bit?” or, “Maybe we should come a lit­tle more to star­board.” But at other times, more clar­ity is called for. You can’t just say, “I’m not sure if that guy sees us. You might want to do some­thing.” If the driver needs to slow down or sound the horn to avoid a col­li­sion, then that is what needs to be said.

Of course, as skip­per, you can sim­ply take over, but that, too, can call for nu­ance. You can grab the helm away, or you can say, “Good job. I’ll take it from here.”

Peo­ple ex­pect the per­son in charge to pro­vide di­rec­tion. Guests want to be help­ful, but they don’t want to screw up or be be­lit­tled. No one is bet­ter po­si­tioned to steer that dy­namic than the skip­per.

A brief ves­sel ori­en­ta­tion can get things started on the right foot. If there are tasks you ex­pect to need help with, then show peo­ple what you want done. Un­der­stand that all things nau­ti­cal, in­clud­ing ter­mi­nol­ogy, are mys­ter­ies to the unini­ti­ated. And that boats come with the po­ten­tial for in­jury. Work­ing with in­ex­pe­ri­enced hands also cre­ates a

higher stan­dard for an­tic­i­pat­ing events. Give peo­ple plenty of ad­vance no­tice so they can carry out an un­fa­mil­iar task at a pace that still meets your tim­ing needs.

If you want some­one to act as a look­out, then tell them what you want re­ported. A close call fol­lowed by “I thought you saw that” is the clear­est tes­ta­ment to poorly ex­plained ex­pec­ta­tions. Ac­knowl­edge re­ports. If you don’t, the look­out will even­tu­ally feel in­signif­i­cant, with a pre­dictable ef­fect on dili­gence.

Dock­ing and push­ing away from the slip are of­ten the most stress­ful parts of an out­ing. Take the time to ex­plain the ap­proach. When peo­ple have a shared men­tal model, they can be more ef­fec­tive in their roles. Rather than hol­ler­ing at folks to get out of your line of sight, ask them be­fore­hand to move to the side of the boat that is op­po­site the dock. Em­pha­size that un­der no cir­cum­stances should hands or feet get be­tween the boat and the dock. If you want things to go well, then don’t give a job to some­one you haven’t taken the time to ex­plain it to.

At the out­set of a cruise, I’ll of­ten say some­thing like this: “No­body sees ev­ery- thing, but every­body sees some­thing, so if you no­tice some­thing that doesn’t seem right, please, please, speak up.”

What might not seem right? A shackle pin back­ing out, a nut or cot­ter pin hav­ing fallen from aloft, some­thing chaf­ing or drag­ging in the wa­ter, a strange vi­bra­tion or rat­tle, the sound of wa­ter trick­ling down be­low, the smell of smoke, fuel or an elec­tri­cal short, a ves­sel over­tak­ing or act­ing er­rat­i­cally. All too of­ten, some­one says, “Yeah, I no­ticed that, but I wasn’t sure if I should say some­thing.”

Lead­er­ship calls for com­mu­ni­ca­tion that is un­am­bigu­ous, de­liv­ered in a way that mo­ti­vates rather than alien­ates. It also calls for lis­ten­ing, which is a source of strength, not weak­ness.

If you are crew and you have some­thing im­por­tant to say, don’t fade out on your mes­sage. It’s a bal­anc­ing act all around, but one that is more likely to suc­ceed if we are aware of just how elu­sive ef­fec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion can be.

How you re­lay in­for­ma­tion de­pends on your crew and the sit­u­a­tion.

Be­cause boat­ing is a so­cial ac­tiv­ity, com­mu­ni­ca­tion mat­ters.

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