For safety, everyone must understand the same language

My grandmother on my mother's side was an immigrant from Greece, and became a U.S. citizen in the 1970s. One of the U.S. government requirements she had to meet to become a naturalized citizen was to read, write and speak English well enough to function in our society.

When I was in high school I'd help her by quizzing her on likely interview questions, such as, "Name your congressional representative and the two senators from Washington state." At that time the answer was Rep. Tom Foley, Sen. Henry Jackson, and Sen. Warren Magnuson. The first time I asked her she blurted out, "Jagson-Magson-Foley." We kept practicing, and ultimately she learned English well enough to meet the citizenship requirements — demonstrating her understanding of the language during an interview in front of a government official. I was very proud of her when she was sworn in as a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Having a grandmother who came from Europe, I grew up feeling comfortable around people whose first language was not English. That has been an asset on many of the ships I've worked on, since men and women from other countries are allowed by law to obtain a U.S. Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC). In fact, on my first commercial ship as a cadet, a U.S.-flag containership that shuttled between the U.S. West Coast and Asian ports, I learned some Tagalog from the chief steward, Arabic from the ordinary seaman and Spanish from the wiper. I have sailed with a number of mariners on U.S.-flag vessels who, like my yiayia, spoke a minimum amount of English.

I worked on a chemical tanker once where the entire deck gang was from Central America. While heading up the Calcasieu River in Louisiana en route to the Citgo refinery at Lake Charles, I came up to relieve the second mate for supper. The pilot was on the bridge, the captain a deck below in his office on a phone call, and an AB, also up there for supper relief, at the helm. I had never met him, as he had just joined the ship the day before in Port Arthur, Texas.

Near the intersection where the Intracoastal Waterway crosses the Calcasieu River, the pilot ordered a course change to port. The AB didn't react. Before I could say something, the pilot gave the order again, and that time the AB repeated the command, but for some reason put the rudder too far over to the left. Concerned we would wipe out two pleasure boats filled with weekenders or run the ship aground, I raced over and grabbed the wheel. After stopping the ship's swing, I then steadied up on the course the pilot had asked for. By this time the captain was back on the bridge, angry and wanting to know what had happened. It was then that the AB, who was from Guatemala, admitted he had a hard time understanding the pilot's English.

Since 2001, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has deemed English the "official" maritime language worldwide. The Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW '95) regulations mandate the use and understanding of English for commercial mariners. Able seamen working as helmsmen are supposed to be able to understand pilot commands in English and communicate them back. Ship officers should have a command of the language that enables them to read, write and speak it capably. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), Chapter V, also stipulates that unless a different common language is shared by all involved, English is to be used in ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore safety communications, and for bridge team and pilot interactions during vessel movements.

In 2007, years after the STCW Code and SOLAS mandated that deck officers worldwide be able to communicate in English, the foreign-flag containership Cosco Busan slammed into a San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge tower. Subsequent investigations determined that the inability of the Chinese master and crew to speak and understand English was a factor in the disaster, which also resulted in an oil spill that fouled hundreds of miles of beach, destroyed fishing beds and killed wildlife by the thousands. A recent study from Turkey pointed out that a lack of English understanding is a contributing factor in many maritime accidents, and that, “there is a compelling need to promote a high level of working maritime English language skills.”

Although English language proficiency for millions of commercial mariners was internationally mandated nearly 10 years ago, performance standards were never formally established by the IMO. Testing protocols to verify that someone can speak, read and write English in accordance with the STCW and SOLAS regulations have never been officially set forth. While some ship registries such as the United Kingdom and Marshall Islands have their own specific English language testing requirements for mariners, the international regulations do not.

I believe that all mariners should be capable of demonstrating that they have a basic understanding of English. Junior officers ought to be able to show a good working knowledge, and senior officers a full command of the English language. All levels of proficiency should be verified as necessary through the use of approved testing programs, such as the Maritime Tests of English Language (MarTEL) used in Europe or the ISF Marlins courses from Britain.

Dealing with an emergency situation on board a vessel is dangerous, and having to overcome a language barrier at the same time could mean the difference between life and death. In the future, perhaps technology like the electronic talking translators used by tourists or the computer voice prompts we've all used on the phone will be employed on board commercial vessels, making the need for English language proficiency tests obsolete. Until that time, in my opinion, mariners should be required to demonstrate that they can understand and use English appropriately in the course of their professional duties.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin'.

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff