When things start to go seriously wrong, your communication skills can go out of the window. Pip Hare explains how to communicate clearly in a crisis situation

When sailing with any number of crew members, good communication is not only key to good seamanship but is the route to a harmonious and happy crew. In times of crisis, however, good communication is often the first thing to slip when we start to panic.

Here are some of my tips for communicating with your crew when it matters the most.

Use names and be direct

Using people’s names when giving orders or when asking questions brings clarity to a situation, avoiding confusion around who is to carry out a task. It can also reassure crew that you are in control of the situation.

Every time I go out with a new crew I learn their names within the first five minutes and always ask if I forget – even if it may cause embarrassment. When asking someone to carry out a task it will be by name and if I want someone to stop doing something I always preface the request with their name.

If two people have the same name we find a way to distinguish between them (but avoid making up nicknames on the spot – in a crisis situation a person is unlikely to respond to a name they’ve only just been given).

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In my safety briefing before any voyage I’m clear that in emergency situations I’ll delegate responsibilities by name and only those crew who have been requested to act must do so. This needs to be done in such a way that crew will still be happy to offer their help or suggestions but it clarifies my role as a coordinator and avoids confusion over who should do what.

This briefing should also eliminate feelings of panic from crew who feel they should be doing something but don’t know what to do – if your name isn’t mentioned it’s OK to do nothing.

When taking command in any sort of crisis, whether it be a man overboard or a ripped spinnaker, try to use clear and direct language, modulate your voice to be loud but not sound alarmed (the difference between ‘shouting to’ and ‘shouting at’), and give time between commands for crew to respond.

People do not expect to hear please and thank you in crisis situations but they will respond best to calm, respectful communications. Communicate each task as simply as possible and, no matter how stressed, try never to use expletives.

Give the crew time

Once an order has been given, wait first to see if it has been heard or understood then wait for it to be carried out. In your initial safety briefing highlight the importance of acknowledgement of orders – this should be done verbally with simple, single words or with an exaggerated hand signal if there is a clear line of sight.

If there is a lot of background noise, shouting commands at each other is a very inefficient way of communication; if possible, get closer to each other or use an intermediary to relay messages. Using pre-agreed hand signals can work well.

If your commands are not being carried out, find out why – watch what is happening or ask what the problem is, but give the crew time to work things out before demanding an immediate explanation.

Debrief

Following any sort of ‘crisis’ on the boat I’ll always try to carry out a short debrief to evaluate what could have been physically done differently and also how I as a skipper performed. Talk it through with those you feel will offer the most insight. For a small crew that will be everyone, for a larger crew I’d choose key players from each area of the boat.

If there has been one crew member who either struggled to understand me or appeared not to agree with my method I’d talk to them separately and identify what was the cause – sometimes a change in language may make things clearer.

Communication off the boat: Data then voice

Ability to deliver a Mayday voice message is vital, but don’t forget that the most effective way to communicate a distress situation is via electronic means – a VHF or HF distress alert, via Sat C or using an EPIRB. Use these methods first, then back up with a voice message.

When transmitting a Mayday over the radio try to write down all the information you need to deliver before going ahead. Make sure you’re clear on your position, particularly if you are reading from a GPS. Don’t forget that most GPS units display in degrees, minutes and decimals of minutes. Be clear on how you’d speak these numbers – they’re the most likely places that people trip up.

Practicing delivery of a standard Mayday message is not an onerous task and if the words and their order are well drilled into your brain it’s far more likely you’ll get them out calmly and clearly when they’re needed most.

If communicating a distress situation with the coastguard over the telephone (sat phone or GSM) use the same message organisation as with a Mayday radio call: identification, position, nature of distress, assistance required, number of people on board, plus any other information.

You should get prompts from the person at the other end, but if there’s a satellite delay or you have limited time to speak it may be necessary to get your message across in one go.

Make sure you’re aware of the call sign and MMSI of any new boat you are crewing on – these should be displayed on a Mayday card close to the VHF.

First published in the July 2019 edition of Yachting World.