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Anke and I live aboard WAYWARD, and wrote about it's design and construction at

Access to the net comes and goes, so I'll be writing in fits and spurts.Please feel free to browse the archives, leave comments where you will and write... I'll respond as I can.

Fair winds!

Dave and Anke
triloboats swirly gmail daughter com

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Chain of Command: Command in Chains

Cap'n Dave
Anarchist at Anchor; Autocrat Afloat
I'm an anarchist. Don't like hierarchies and reject authority.

Which is why it pains me to admit that, shipboard, all this goes out the porthole. Handling a vessel requires prompt, decisive and coordinated action. A bunch of anarchists have trouble pulling together on short notice. Democracy is a day late and a dollar short.

Nothing but autocracy has stood the test of time and the sea.

With the Captain lies the burden of decision. It is the Cap'n who issues the orders, coordinating crew actions; to whom the crew reports. For good or ill, when the Cap'n says jump, the only question is how high? No argument; no discussion. Not because father knows best, but because there ain't no time.

But that's only urgent in the very few times that events are coming thick and fast.

Most often, there is time for the Cap'n to gather opinions, expertise and wishes from the crew. Consensus can, in most cases, be reached. Humor and grace and tolerance... these are not just magnanimities, but contribute significantly to working the vessel. Disrespect toward the crew has lost many's the otherwise tight ship.

On SLACKTIDE, as a crew of lovers; maltreatment and disrespect aren't options.

We trade off the captaincy, because, like any skill, it takes practice. When we need that skill, we want it well worn and familiar in the hand. We don't want to be thinking about the process when our minds are full of wind and rocks.

Most times it's easy going... falling into the rhythms of drop anchor and pull, set sail and reef. We talk over our wishes and the realities that beset them, and come to an accord. But when push comes to shove, and Cap'n Anke's on deck, when she says jump, I ask how high!

It isn't necessary that the most experienced person be captain. That can help, sure. But, so long as captains draw on the experience of their crew, and can depend on crew to execute their commands, the ability to be decisive trumps experience.

On a warship, for example, the captain is unlikely to be most qualified to maintain the engines, sit sonar, or even navigate... all those are skills to command; resources to be called upon. On a cruiser, the captain might put the most experienced person at the helm in a blow, or the lightest to the masthead to free a haulyard. Decision and delegation are the captain's business.


Work out Communication Protocols - This feels goofy, at first, and sounds like a bad play until you get it down. But it helps immensely to develop terse, easily understood communication standards for each SOP. Some will be non-verbal (whole arm signals, and the like). Verbal exchange should be just as simple and precise. It helps to use words of one or two syllables which carry well. Speak up, and turn to face the recipient. Repeat back for confirmation.

Some of these protocols are well known maritime standards. Shippy terms and usages aren't just vain souvenirs of times gone by. They evolved because they work well under stress. I'm not talking about piping the Admiral aboard. Ready about / Helm a-lee is the kind of thing I mean.

Traditional forms are tried-and-true and understood by most sailors. For example, the term 'tack' is common usage, while its trendy alternative, 'flop', is not. Either work, however, so long as all aboard are fluent with the terms.

[This bit is reposted from Rules of Thumb.]


Our most useful call outs are Stand by! and Say again! These mean Hold on aminnit! and Huh? respectively, but carry further. By saying the same thing each time, it's much more clear than a bag of equivalents shouted across a windy deck. We've learned to trust them, too, that they'll work without further explanation or complaint, and that heads off the quetsching to which couples can be prone.

Here are some sample exchanges we use....

Getting underway:

Haul short!
Hauling short... short! 

Haul away!
Hauling... anchors a'trip... anchor's aweigh... anchor's aboard!
Anchor's aboard!

Back main to starb'rd!
Backing main to starb'rd!
Let go the main!

I toldja this sounds goofy. Lot's of redundancy and small steps, practiced in calm times, make it go like clockwork when it's blowing up and sleeting sideways.

The mizzen (aft sail) is hauled up before we get started, which holds our bow into the wind. While the anchor is being hauled aboard, the helm hoists the main. If there are any difficulties at the anchor (weed, say), the bow will answer the backing call with "No can do!". The helm will then go forward to back the sail and complete the maneuver.

In that last step, backing the main makes the bow fall off away from the backed sail. The helm will reverse tiller away from the sail, as well, and the boat spins on a dime. At 45deg off the wind, we let go the main, trim, and sail off under normal helm.

Dropping anchor:

No bottom at twelve fathoms!
No bottom at twelve fathoms!
Mud bottom at ten fathoms... standby to drop port side!
Standing by!

Mud bottom at five fathoms... Drop!

Make fast!
Making fast... line coming taut!
Line coming taut!



The helm is doing the sounding. As soon as the doink is done, the helm hauls the boards, to prevent fouling with the anchor line. Tidy up commences with no commands necessary.


Reef two main panels!
Reefing two main panels!

Reef two mizzen panels!
Reefing two mizzen panels!

The helm will trim the sails as each is reefed.

Tacking up a narrow, rocky cut:

Stand by the pole!
Standing by the pole!

Rock on the port bow, four meters, half fathom!
Rock on port bow, four meters, half fathom!


Note that dangers are identified by direction, distance and depth. We accompany this with whole arm pointing, when possible.

In this case, the bow usually call the shots as they have the good view. It's their call whether to push with the pole, or not, though the helm can also call for a push or backed sail.

We actually prefer to sail close-hauled through dangers. The only active option is to tack, which simplifies things greatly. If we somehow end up in a cul de sac, worst case is luff up, drop the main, and drift backwards through clear water until we can fall off again.


As you can see, there's not much to it. The main trick is to have clear, unambiguous words. Repetition helps nip misunderstanding in the bud. And practice, practice, practice!

Assess, Address, Amend. This is our mantra. We work out standard operating procedures (SOPs), and debrief them after every task in which there's the least whiff of trouble.

When something has gone wrong, there are only two possibilities: Either the SOPs need improvement, or we need more training (drills) in their use.

Neither of these is a personal issue... there is no blame or recrimination called for, no matter how dire the consequences. There's a tendency to think that guilt is proportional to a bad outcome. I propose that guilt is an impediment to action, and to the correction of problems. Guilt, defensiveness, and blame are a useless and unpleasant tangle of emotions... I strongly suggest you chuck 'em overboard.

And when the anchor's down, Cap'n, take off the hat?


  1. I figured out right in the beginning that our boat would be a no yelling boat. Too often I'd see couples in what looked like the middle of a marital breakdown while shouting confusing commands at each other. ugly.

    We figured out early that proper sailing terms were developed for a reason. Anything that limits confusion in the heat of the moment is a good thing.

    My lovely wife and I captain pretty much the same way.

    1. Hi Sixbears,

      I sometimes think on all the natural selection that went on over the ages to polish maritime communications... how many ships and sailors were lost in that process. We owe a big debt to those who went before!

      Sounds like you and your wife run a happy ship!


    2. I had my first mishap as a pond skipper in over 30 years of pond skippery. Management refused to follow orders and fell overboard at the boat ramp on Derby Pond. We have much to work out before venturing into the brackish/salty. Great post.

    3. Thanks, Doug.

      One mishap in 30+ years isn't bad, my friend! And I'm sure it was a learning experience for all concerned. 8)

      Debrief and go on... I'd even say to venture onto the briny deeps with caution and respect. Life is so short... waiting to be perfect may keep you pond-bound. Life is risky, but more drown in bathtubs than at sea!

      I'm just sayin'!


  2. Nice! And what a great poster for junk rigs, that the exchange for reefing involves one statement per person :-)

    -- Shemaya

    1. Hi Shemaya,

      Anything to cut complexity!



  3. Seen a few couples in the middle ground (kinda there but not quite) in that they'd mastered the sign language but was sometimes punctuated by this strange gesture involving a raised middle fingers, often emphatically used with passionate shaking motion raised way over the head.

    In our little 15 foot open cockpit centerboard sloop we dispensed with such communication. Usually the sound of rolling beer bottles in the bilge and flaming weed was all we needed around the bay and if we ran agound so what as the boat only drew about 5". But once the displacement goes up and the waters trickier and all lifes possessions are aboard now that's different. Time to get serious and I mean not seriously stressed at each other due to miscommunication. I've seen couples where I would gladly have slipped a .45 in the womans hand she deserved to off her bastard screaming husband so badly. The kind of guy that deserved me nocturnally sticking one of those bumper stickers made with mega glue and flimsy paper (tough to scrape off without going to tiny bits) on his transom that says "If you had a dick as small as mine you'd need a Benneteau 51 too!!!"

    Here's to the margins, amigo!!!

    1. Hi Gomez,

      It certainly seems true that there's a proportionality to the size and cost of the boat (and therefore the scale of consequence) and the emotional stresses involved.

      Hopefully, though, it's a matter of education and practice, rather than innate character flaws.

      Insecurity, fear and guilt/blame all lead to harsh language at high volume. I like to think that other ways can be made learned.

      Trick is to find a way through the defensive perimeters so often woven around that kind of behavior!