Put accent on respect, courtesy for effective communication at sea

I was working on a gasoline tanker running between Tampa, Fla., Lake Charles, La., and Corpus Christi, Texas, when a new third mate  joined our ship. He appeared quiet and shy by nature, and had graduated a few weeks earlier from an East Coast maritime academy. From what I observed during his first few days aboard, he was sharp and serious about his work. One night while we were underway, I came up to relieve him for watch. I was looking over the chart and night orders in the chartroom, which was separated from the wheelhouse by a door; maybe he didn’t notice I was there, because this quiet, shy third mate was cussing and yelling at the AB on his watch for making bad coffee and leaving streaks on the wheelhouse windows after he cleaned them. By the time I opened the chartroom door and came onto the bridge to do the changeover, he had reverted back to his seemingly quiet, reserved self.

Not long after that incident, rumors about the new third mate began making the rounds on the ship. I got the latest from the AB on my watch, who told me that during docking at the refinery in Corpus Christi, “one minute the mate was as cheerful and pleasant as a Walmart greeter, the next minute something set him off and he launched into a tirade, throwing his gloves down on the deck and screaming at the AB on the winch.” The captain was a good guy who treated everyone with respect and courtesy. So it did not surprise me that the third mate’s “Jekyll and Hyde” verbal skills got him run off the ship after only about a month on board. I never saw his name on the company officer roster again.

There is no getting around it. Whether it’s sharing a two- or three-person stateroom, a fire drill exercise in full turn-out gear with the whole crew, or eating every meal at communal tables, life on a commercial vessel demands that everyone on board has to interact with every one else on board — no exceptions. In other words, as the third mate found out the hard way, effectively communicating with your shipmates is a necessity.

Verbal communication, according to experts, is much more than just words spoken by one person to another. It is an interaction, by word of mouth, between the sender of information and the receiver of it. From the sending side, it turns out that it is not just what is said that matters, but how it is said as well. The tone, the facial expressions and the loudness of the voice — all of these factor into the sender’s side of verbal communication. The receiver’s side of the equation involves listening, comprehending and responding to the information received. The basics of verbal communication are easy to learn and understand, but mastering the techniques in real life is a whole different matter entirely.

I have been lucky in my maritime career to have sailed with a few men and women who were great communicators, excellent examples of people who had the gift of being able to convey something in a way that just worked on every level. Lucy, a chief mate on a tanker, gave verbal instructions during cargo operations that were perfectly clear, succinct and delivered in a way that never made you feel she thought you were slow on the uptake — even if you were. Vern, the boatswain on a containership I sailed on as a cadet, could teach anything by telling you a story about it. Mike, a first engineer on a research vessel, had a knack for making complicated engineering ideas seem logical, so even non-engineers like myself could follow along and understand. Each of these mariners admitted that they were not “naturals” when it came to good communication; it had taken effort and practice to develop the verbal skills they had.

Like most merchant mariners, I did not enter the profession as a great communicator. Progressing from deck hand to being a senior ship’s officer, I learned enough from my wife (a junior high math teacher), my friends and my shipmates to develop my own verbal communication techniques on the job. As a “people person,” I always make it a point to get to know my shipmates. Knowing a bit about where a person is coming from enables me to understand how best to verbally convey my message to them clearly and cogently. When I have to speak with someone on board, my first rule is to not let my emotions get the better of me, and to never get into a verbal confrontation. In fact, before uttering a word, I take a deep breath, think about and focus on what I want to say, gear my comments specifically to the person, and then afterward ask if there are any questions. It took a long time, lots of practice and some learning from my mistakes, but the efforts to improve my verbal communication skills have definitely made things go more smoothly over the years.

Any mariner can improve their communication skills, and there are many good books on the market that can help. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie is a classic. A number of DVDs on effective verbal communication are also available for those who prefer visual learning. Mariners who are serious about mastering good verbal skills on their career track may even consider attending a seminar. I know a port engineer who went to an “Improving Verbal Communication for Business” seminar in the city where he lives. That $149 investment helped him improve his skills, which he asserts were instrumental in his successful transition from a seagoing to a shoreside marine engineering professional.

At sea, our lives and the safety of the vessel could depend on good, clear communication. So do yourself a favor. Take a bit of time and effort to develop your verbal communication skills. You will be surprised at how all aspects of your life may change and improve.

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

Kelly Sweeney holds a license of master (oceans, any gross tons), and has held a master of towing vessels license (oceans) as well. He sails on a variety of commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@profressionstg.wpengine.com.

By Professional Mariner Staff