It is a Saturday in spring, and the marina is alive with boat owners scrubbing decks and leaning over lifelines getting reacquainted with neighbors. The tranquility is abruptly shattered by a perfect storm of colorful language; the couple on E dock taking out their sailboat for its maiden cruise. He is at the helm, shouting over the roar of the diesel, she is juggling a boat hook and a bow line, the boat is bouncing off of the pilings like an old-fashioned pinball—and just then the 30-amp shore power tears loose, skitters across the finger pier, and dives into the water.
The engine shifts to idle and everyone in the marina can hear her scream, “Stop yelling at me!”
Scenarios like this play out on docks everywhere as pleasant adults who seem perfectly compatible on land turn into bad reality TV the minute the boat starts to pull out of the slip. A few weeks into the season and the first mate will suddenly be too busy for a day cruise, let alone a whole weekend, and the forlorn captain will be stuck at the dock, drinking margaritas alone.
I can relate. My husband was the experienced sailor—I was the novice. We started with a 22’ Catalina, easy to maneuver and small enough to communicate over the noise of the wind or the 5 hp. outboard. It was when we moved up to our 33’ Morgan that the troubles began. The bow was a long way from the wheel, and it is amazing how many different words someone can use when trying to get you to hold tight to the port side spring line. After a notable shouting match, attempting to drop anchor in a once-peaceful cove, we hit on what may seem like common sense to some but was genius to us: hand signals.
This isn’t about gender. The same dynamics are at work with men and women in reversed roles and with same-sex crews. The truth is that not only is it difficult to hear when maneuvering under power or in heavy seas, it is also difficult to form and to process lengthy directions. Loud voices and frequent misunderstanding are bound to occur. We found that creating a set of hand signals for routine tasks made leaving the slip, anchoring, and docking much less stressful—and that made being out on the water a lot more fun.
We start with the basics. In preparing to pull away from the dock, three fingers touching the palm of the other hand indicate that it is time to unplug the line from the shore power; once done, a fist on the head (the universal dive signal for “o.k.”) indicates that the job is done and it is safe to proceed. Pointing to port or starboard indicates the side you will be working on, while touching your nose indicates a bow line, touching your side indicates a spring line, and smacking your…well, you get the idea. A finger making a circling motion signals to toss the line off, while a clenched hand indicates the line should be held until the signal to release is given. These signals can be modified however you choose, as long as they are easily recognizable to the entire crew and communicated silently. With a few practices, you should find yourselves working together almost effortlessly – so much so that bystanders may compliment your superior boat-handling skills!
Another set of signals can be developed for anchoring, in that case initiated by whomever is on the bow to drop the hook. Directions for forward, reverse, neutral, and speed should be relayed to the helmsman by gesture only, allowing for a quicker set and minimizing the possibility of running over your own (or anyone else’s) anchor line. Just as in docking, it is essential to be clear from the start who will be giving “orders” and who will be following them. With the exception of an emergency, differences of opinion on docking or anchoring technique cannot be discussed until the boat is secured and, preferably, all involved parties have a drink in hand.
The greatest benefits of hand signals are that they are fast, neutral and unambiguous. This is not to suggest that using hand signals will save your relationship, or that you will never be tempted to add in a gesture that might be emotionally satisfying but less than helpful. But the beauty of hand signals is that, unlike most marine communication devices, they cost nothing, and they could forestall a mutiny. Otherwise, you can just keep yelling—and hope someone will listen.
Ann Eichenmuller has been boating on the Chesapeake for 35 years. She and her husband Eric currently sail their 33’ Morgan, Avalon, out of Myers Creek off of the Corrotoman River.