Professional sailor, Pip Hare takes us through the key issues and dos and don'ts of proper onboard communication

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to join the French crew of the IMOCA 60 Bureau Vallée 3 for the Ocean Race Europe. Their new boat had been launched just one week before the start of the race and we had no time to train together as a team.

When I arrived in Lisbon for leg two we went straight afloat for the coastal race. Managing the bow on a new boat, in a language which is not my native tongue and when the remaining crew are behind a solid coachroof was a huge challenge. It made me think about the importance of communication to sailors at all levels and how it’s a skill we don’t always practice or value enough.

Communication between crew members is essential to safety, performance and maintaining a harmonious atmosphere on board. Yet operating big boats, particularly with small crew numbers in harsh weather, can make it almost impossible to hear conventional speech. Here are some of the skills I practice to make sure communication on board is slick.

Brief it out

Talk through any manoeuvre before it happens; bring the crew together in a place where everyone can hear, ask questions and do not feel at risk. Agree the sequence of events and how you will communicate with each other, including what words or actions you will use to initiate actions, confirm they are done or indicate a possible problem.


Photo: James Mitchell

Use your knowledge and past experience to discuss things that could go wrong and how they can be mitigated. Allow the information to flow in both directions. It is especially important that crew who are going to the bow in a heavy sea or being hoisted up the mast know that they will be understood from their position of vulnerability. Let the person doing the work tell you what they need and how they will communicate it to you.

Adapt your style

As skipper there is never any need to bark at your crew but in tense or challenging situations there is no room for extra words and niceties. Being firm and short with your language can feel uncomfortable but in times of intense concentration clean concise language is essential.

It may also be important to raise the level of your voice so it can be heard, but remembering there is a difference between shouting ‘to’ and shouting ‘at’ someone.

Choose words and commands that are easy to distinguish from one another and are precise. For example, if I am asking for a mooring line to be slipped I will say ‘let go’. If I want a sheet to be eased I will say, ‘ease sheet half a metre’.

When working with novice crew don’t forget to tell them when to stop an action as well as when start it. If you are performing a task remotely don’t forget to communicate your success as well as problems.

Remove barriers

There are many factors that can make communication on board difficult: wind and engine noise, line of sight, doghouses or sprayhoods, clothing and light conditions. Try to create an environment that will make it easy to see and hear what others are saying.

Turn VHF radios down or off if they are not essential to what you’re doing – if you need to listen to the VHF then allocate a crew member to listen below decks. Fold large collars down so they are not covering your ears, try to face the people who are speaking to you, use deck floodlights to help see crew hand signals, open a window on the doghouse if conditions allow.

J Class Racing in Falmouth 2015

Velsheda Bowman Jeff Reynolds onboard Lionheart. Photo: Graham Snook

Also give your crew time to communicate with you. If there is a problem it sometimes takes a few minutes to understand what needs to be done and being constantly asked for information can be distracting and stressful. If you need time to sort something out then ask for time.

Hand signals

  • Hand signals are well worth learning and using. They allow communication in extreme environments, over long distances and when crew members are not facing each other. Signals could include:
  • One finger extended and rotating: wind the rope in or up
    Fist to open palm with spread fingers repeatedly: Ease rope out or down
  • Extended arm with closed fist: hold
    One arm extended with a number of fingers showing: boat lengths to the start line or metres to a dock or mooring buoy
    One arm extended finger pointing: direction of anchor or mooring buoy

Using technology

Headsets are commonplace technology on large racing yachts, and essential on fast designs like the Ultimes where the apparent wind makes communication near impossible even with crew who are very nearby.

Communication by headset is commonplace – and often essential – on large racing yachts. Photo: Yann Riou/Volvo Ocean Race

They might seem like overkill for the average cruising boat but with an increasing number of bluewater cruisers offering fully enclosed cockpits a waterproof closed loop headset might not be such a crazy idea.

A good quality waterproof set of two hands-free headsets will cost around £400, but even a non-specific short range devices could make life easier for a double-handed team managing a big boat and could be a sound investment both for safety and relationships. Increasing numbers of couples use them for mooring and berthing.

Mobile phones are not practical for use all of the time but they can help a lot in the right circumstances. I always take my phone up the mast with me – I can then take and share photos of problems and if I need some specific support I can call the crew on the deck and let them know exactly what help is required.

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