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 everything, 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.
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue.