Wednesday, October 26, 2011


It was during an “internal audit,” when someone from the office comes out to the ship to make sure we’re running our safety program correctly:
Latin American Crewmember: "You know what would be good? If we put all these policies together into some kind of..."
Office guy (American southerner): "Handbook?"
Crewmember: "Yes, a handbook!"
Office guy: "We have a handbook. Didn't you get one?"
Crewmember: "No."
Other crewmember (East Coast American): "Me, either."
Third crewmember (West Coast American): "[Owner's name redacted] is too smart to put anything in writing."
Office guy: "I'll get you an handbook!"
The discussion continued...
Office guy: "Do you want it in English or Spanish?"
Crewmember: "Both."
Office guy: "Well we only have it in English."
Crewmember: "That's fine."
For historic and economic reasons, English is the closest thing we have to a “universal language” in the world today just as, in their times, French, Latin, and Greek all filled that role. It is also the “official language” of mariners worldwide. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) requires that bridge officers speak English for bridge-to-bridge, bridge-to-shore, and bridge team-to-pilot communications. 

On ships where all the crew speak the same language, it’s possible for communications among them to be conducted in their native language, but with so many of today’s vessels having crew from several different countries, sometimes English is the only common language. This can be especially important in emergency response.

On the night of April 7, 1990, a fire on the ferry Scandinavian Star, sailing between Oslo, Norway and Frederikshavn, Denmark, killed 158 people. The fire fighting response was hampered, in part, by the inability of the crew to communicate with each other; the officers were Norwegian, the crew largely Portuguese. The incident led the IMO to adopt stronger standards for SeaSpeak, a group of standardized English phrases for navigational and emergency communications.

Although many SeaSpeak phrases would make your high school English teacher grimace (“Please proceed to my assistance.”), the idea is to provide a means of expressing certain ideas common to marine communications situations using only a few simple words and phrases, called the Standard Maritime Communications Phrases (SMCP). A few examples, from the Australian Maritime College’s Marine Radio Operator’s Handbook:
 “Question” Indicates the following message is of interrogative character.
“Answer” Indicates that the following message is the reply to a previous question.
“Request” Indicates that the content of the following message is asking for action with respect to the ship.
“Information” Indicates that the following message is restricted to observed facts.
“Intention” Indicates that the following message informs others about immediate navigational actions intended to be taken.
“Warning” Indicates that the following message informs other traffic participants about dangers.
“Advice” Indicates that the following message implies the intention of the sender to influence the recipient(s) by a recommendation.
Where the answer to a question is in the affirmative, say: “Yes” followed by the appropriate phrase in full.
Where the answer to a question is in the negative, say: “No” followed by the appropriate phrase in full.
Where the information is not immediately available, but soon will be, say: “Stand by”.
Where the information cannot be obtained, say: “No information”.
Where a message is not properly heard, say: “Say again”.
One problem that comes up with SeaSpeak is that native English speakers don’t use it when communicating with ships crewed by non-English speakers. SeaSpeak is not the same as regular English, or even English as a Second Language (ESL). Even native English speakers sometimes find each other hard to understand if they come from different countries or regions.

For the AMC’s Marine Radio Operator’s Manual Appendix 6, “Standard Marine Communications Phrases,”, click here.

A challenge for American readers: check out Mr. Tongue Twister's video and see if you can make heads of tails of it (then maybe you'll give that Chinese container ship captain a break next time!):

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