Home' Ships and Shipping : December 2010 Contents The maritime language laboratory
Thoughts from the distinguished maritime commentator Michael Grey MBE.
Every mariner knows the joke about the master who called for
the mate to drop the starboard anchor, who was instead
offered a prawn sandwich by a diligent steward.
Or the linguistic misapprehension which led to the ferry
master’s question “is it clear aft?” being interpreted as “it is clear
aft!” leading to the ship surging out of the berth and taking half
the linkspan with it.
I said they were jokes, but they are not as funny as all that, with
increasing concern about the polyglot and multi-lingual manning
found aboard most modern merchant ships. Ask any pilot and he
will tell you of the times he has torn his hair out as his
communications for the direction of the ship have been
misinterpreted by ship’s people who appear to speak no known
language. The fiasco in San Francisco which led to the allision of
the ‘Cosco Busan’ with the Oakland Bridge probably would not
have happened had there been a less stilted communication
between the pilot and the Chinese bridge team.
We have attempts to “impose” a maritime vocabulary, but it
generally doesn’t work very well, and while we can witter on about
“English being the maritime language” a facility with this is, to put
it kindly, patchy. And, let’s face it, those of us for whom English is
a first language are not exactly great shakes at learning Hindustani,
Tagalog or Mandarin. It is difficult for us to preach.
Earlier this year in Manila, what will eventually become the
latest derivation of the Standards of Training, Certification and
Watchkeeping Convention was agreed, and contained within its
small print are some significant pointers on language and more
importantly, its comprehension.
Once STCW 2010 is up and running, specific attention to
the neglected subjects of “leadership and management” will
have to be examined en route to the senior statutory licenses.
It, for instance, recognises the importance of communication
and specifies this as an explicit competence. It points out, for
instance, the importance of clear and unambiguous
communications, noting that the sharing of understanding,
clear briefing and debriefing, the need to appropriately
challenge and respond to challenges in a sensible way,
comprehension and behavioural markers are all the marks of
effective leadership, which will be required and must
What this tends to suggest is that the polyglot manning of
merchant ships, in which it is not uncommon to find half a
dozen languages aboard, will be increasingly challenged by port
state control inspectors.
I had described to me a few years ago the scene which
evolved when a port state control inspector asked the master of a
large car carrier to replicate the boat and fire drill which,
according to the log book, had been diligently carried out at the
specified intervals. It was, he said, like one of those Charlie
Chaplin slapstick comedies, with the master bawling commands
at his officers, who appeared completely unable to understand a
single word he was shouting, while the ratings, who could
comprehend neither master nor officers, or each other, milled
around aimlessly, putting their lifejackets on back-to-front or
tripping over each other’s big feet.
The port state inspector promptly put an end to this Fred
Karno’s Circus and slapped a detention order on the ship,
which, because she was operated by a very large company
indeed, practically caused a diplomatic incident. Several days
later, with the charterer raging and the owner blustering, and
after hours of rehearsals, the boat drill was accomplished, and
the vessel released to continue her voyage.
The inference with STCW 2010 is that what the industry
has managed to get away with in the past, it probably won’t
in the future. We have all rolled around laughing at the antics
of the mad hotelier Basil Fawlty and the hapless Spanish
waiter Manuel. We have managed to scrape by with a lot of
shouting and gesticulating in the past, employing the boatswain or
deck serang as the “translator in chief”. But ships are getting more
sophisticated and require rather more sensitive handling and less
blundering around hoping that it will all come good in the end.
“Everyone panics in their own language,” famously said the
maritime educator and former mariner Professor David Moreby,
and it is clearly advantageous if you can determine whether there
is a panic developing, or merely somebody calling for that prawn
sandwich, or for the starboard anchor to be dropped. “If in
danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout” – was a sort
of sarcastic commentary on what went on in too many ships in
There have been some truly hideous accidents recently, such
as where a multiplicity of nationalities was mixed up in the close
confines of a burning fish factory ship in the South Pacific and a
lot of people died. The joking stops when you think of the
struggle to marshal and evacuate a big passenger ship employing
a multi-national crew where the common language is a sort of
And let’s face it, there is a lot to be said about being in a ship
where everyone speaks the same language. You can argue that
being stuck in a steel box, for months on end, with a gang of
people to whom you cannot even talk about the football results, is
akin to a sort of torture, two or three pegs down from
water-boarding perhaps, but denial of normal human rights
nonetheless. Where’s that prawn sandwich?
December 2010 SHIPS AND SHIPPING
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