Sharpen your listening skills to avoid conflict and danger at sea

I had joined the 890-foot crude oil tanker at Swan Island, Ore., the week before, and since coming aboard had been busy as the ship neared the end of its scheduled yard period. It had been a very long day, with lots of going in and out of cargo tanks, and I was on deck heading back to the house to clean up for supper. I was walking by the No. 3 starboard tank as the chief mate climbed out, when he called me over and said, “I need you to work overtime tonight, stenciling around the pump room. Get with the boatswain for what needs doing.” 

At 1800, I went out on deck and asked the boatswain about the pump room stencils. He looked at me oddly for a moment, then said, “You mean forepeak, not pump room.” I responded, “No, the mate told me the pump room.” The boatswain replied, “I have two ABs who’ll be stenciling back there tonight. The mate wanted you to do the forepeak.” Unconvinced, I went inside and called the mate to verify. When asked whether it was the pump room or forepeak area I was supposed to stencil, he replied irritatedly, “I said forepeak, not pump room. Now quit wasting my time, and get out there and do the work — we need it finished before tomorrow.” 

Thinking about what had transpired, it was perplexing to me why I had heard “pump room” when he’d said “forepeak.” It was probably because, after a hard day, I was too tired to focus on what he was saying. Whatever the reason, it was obvious that I did not listen carefully, misheard the mate’s instructions and never verified what he wanted — irritating him and causing myself some grief as a result.

Miscommunication on a commercial vessel can be troublesome. During mooring and unmooring, cargo operations and on the bridge underway, it could mean the difference between safety and disaster — and even life and death. That’s why it is a maritime custom in those circumstances for all orders given to be repeated back. For example, a watch officer on the bridge who gives an able seaman at the wheel the helm order of “hard left rudder” should expect a reply of “Roger, hard left rudder” before any rudder change is made. 

According to experts, there are a number of types of listening. “Reflective listening” is when something such as a helm order is repeated back by the listener to the speaker. Another category is known as “active listening” — made famous by world-renowned clinical psychologist Thomas Gordon. I first heard about active listening from my wife, a junior high school mathematics teacher, who’d learned about it in Gordon’s book, Teacher Effectiveness Training.

Active listening was developed to enhance interpersonal communication, and minimize the conflict and problems that can arise from misunderstandings and mishearing. In order to get a complete idea of what the speaker is trying to say, it requires the listener to not only hear all that is being said, but to be aware of nonverbal clues such as the tone of voice and body language — as well as techniques to check for understanding. The goal of active listening is to enable the listener to fully comprehend and remember what was said, and to respond so that the speaker knows he or she was heard correctly. During a 75-day work tour on a chemical tanker, I saw firsthand how active-listening techniques can be used successfully aboard a ship. 

I had just come up to the bridge to relieve the third mate for my 1200-to-1600 watch. We had a pilot on board as the ship turned at Alcatraz Island en route to San Francisco’s Anchorage Nine. The captain, who was moody and difficult to work with, paced back and forth and scowled. As we passed under the Bay Bridge near Rincon Park, he stopped his pacing in midstride and in a low, difficult-to-hear voice mumbled something about the other ships in the anchorage. The pilot turned to look at the captain and asked, “What was that you said about the ships in the anchorage, captain?” The lookout, the helmsman and I watched to see how the captain was going to react, bracing for another one of his blowups.

After getting no response to his question, the pilot calmly stated, “I heard you say something about the ships in the anchorage, captain, but didn’t hear the rest. Could you please repeat what you said?” With an exasperated expression, the skipper replied, “Keep at least a quarter mile away from all ships in the anchorage.” The pilot then said, “I understand you want us to keep a quarter mile away from all ships in the anchorage, and I will make sure we do that.” He adjusted our heading accordingly, and we proceeded in as the skipper wanted without the expected flare-up, dropping the hook a half-hour later.

I knew how hard it was to get along with the captain, and I was impressed by the nonconfrontational way the pilot handled the situation. He verified that what he thought he’d heard and understood was indeed what the captain wanted. Then he responded accordingly, and was thus able to avoid the rant we all anticipated. 

Although a few professional classes, such as bridge resource management, highlight the importance of effective listening and communication at sea, none that I know of directly address how to improve listening skills for mariners. The bottom line is you’re going to have to do the work yourself if you want to become a better listener. For an in-depth treatment of active listening, I recommend Gordon’s Leader Effectiveness Training, and clinical psychologist Michael Nichols’ The Lost Art of Listening. Another option is to take one of the myriad of online and in-person seminars aimed at improving listening skills. 

Upon reflection, I can’t imagine that any mariner hasn’t seen a difficult situation on board that could have been avoided if those involved had been better listeners. Likewise, while off the vessel, being a more adept listener can help with navigating the conflicts that arise in your personal life. Make no mistake, however: It takes hard work and consistent effort to improve your listening skills, but I can say from experience that it’s definitely worth it. 

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

By Professional Mariner Staff