The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
— George Bernard Shaw
It all comes down to communication, right? True of just about anything that involves more than one person. Dave and I have certainly had the typical episodes of major miscommunication over 23 years of marriage, but we’ve also learned what works well for us. This cruising adventure has provided new opportunities for problems and solutions, and we have developed our highly anecdotal and unscientific Illusions of Communication (or Ill o’Comms — I just made up that name – with due respect to Mr. Shaw)
Docking is the most notorious example in the pleasure boating world of the many ways a breakdown in any of these principles of communication can lead to problems. The age-old stereotype is the husband screaming from the helm at the wife running around on deck, using nautical terms she doesn’t understand as well as not being able to hear over all the ambient noise. We’ve seen it firsthand in the few months we’ve been cruising, the most memorable being in Georgetown, SC. A couple’s obscenity-laced screaming at each other brought several of us out of our boats as dusk fell and they were trying to dock. Arguing over whether or not they could fit their big boat in the only small space on the dock, he insisting they could and she telling him no way. We went to help them with the lines, concerned they were putting the boats nearby at risk if the husband was wrong. She was about to toss me this really fat line from their deck three feet above the dock, when Husband decided he couldn’t make it after all and threw it into reverse, nearly pitching her over the railing. She turned and loudly fired off some choice words at him and then turned to me with a smile and sweetly said, ‘Thank you for your help. We’ll try somewhere else.’
Ill o‘ Comm 1: It is transmitted, therefore it is received.
In fairness, between engine noise and wind gusting and water slapping one is frequently left with no choice but to shout and yell on a boat. Even then the effectiveness is spotty. Hand signals for various boating tasks can help when noise and distance make the auditory method problematic, but you can’t always be assured the Receiver is looking at the Transmitter. Technology to the rescue in the form of Bluetooth headsets! Fondly dubbed Marriage Savers by the cruising community, we use ones that only go over one ear and keeping the other available for hearing someone on the dock or other auditory clues like changes in engine noise or the sound of splintering wood as you crash into a dock piling (which we fortunately have not experienced so far). We even use them if I’m just sitting on the bow taking photos or watching the scenery while he’s at the helm inside, and we can carry on casual conversations and point out things to see. The only problem I have is that they want to fall off my head. Don’t know if I have a small head or slippery hair or what, but since I’m out on deck bending and twisting and turning this can be an expensive loss overboard. Supposedly they float, but 1) they make no claims about being waterproof, and recovering a headset that no longer works is pointless, and 2) they are not an effective hearing device if they’re not on my head. I spent our early days trying various ways to keep them in place. A lanyard at least might keep them from going overboard, but since I have not developed any auditory receptors on my neck they would still be non-functional at potentially a critical time when my hands are full of lines and I can’t put them back on. I tried a ball cap – both on top and underneath the headset – but ballcaps blow off my fine straight hair easily and then I’ve lost both the headset AND a ballcap overboard. I finally have settled on headset topped with a floppy brimmed hat with a chin strap that I can tighten down to keep everything in place. Finish off my fashion statement with big sunglasses and I look like some kind of giant bug. But at least I’m a bug that can communicate.
Whoever invented these should win the Nobel Prize in Domestic Tranquility. What I can’t figure out is…why are these confined to boats only??? These would be great for marriages everywhere – no yelling upstairs or into garages, through bathroom doors, or out to the yard. No need to do the frantic gesticulating to get someone to stop the vacuum cleaner or lawn mower to ask if the other has seen the car keys or fed the dog. No excuse of “I didn’t hear you ask me to (fill in the blank).” Better than texting or calling their cell even though they’re in the next room, as this is instantaneous. Way cheaper than marriage counseling. I think the headphone people are missing a huge marketing opportunity here. Shoot, I’m thinking of wearing them continuously on the boat, as even though we’re living in 500 sq ft of living space at our age we still have a lot of ‘huh?’ and ‘say that again?’ between us.
When docking/undocking or anchoring, my job is to handle the lines or anchor or whatever while Dave drives the boat. I have to ‘gear up’ about 20 min before we arrive or depart. The Gearing Up process usually goes like this:
- Put on headset
- Put on hat, cinch down under chin to make sure it’s snug
- Put on sunglasses
- Put on sailing gloves (helps with grip, especially if the lines get wet)
- Don life vest
- Realize I forgot to put the battery in the headset
- Take off hat and send the headset whacking into my nose or cheek, ripping off my sunglasses, because all got tangled up in the chin strap.
- Swear a little bit. Okay, more than a little bit.
- Attempt to disentangle everything, but have to stop and remove gloves because they impede my fine motor disentangling abilities
- Put battery in headset
- Repeat steps 1-4
Okay, now I’m ready, but I’m five minutes behind and am feeling rushed. This is how it plays out. Pretty much every single time.
Ill o’Comm 2: My context is everyone’s context
Recently as we were making the short hop across the Chesapeake Bay from Norfolk to Hampton, the VHF crackled with a standard Navy Securité announcement about a submarine pulling in and everyone needs to stay away. Rather ironic to be viewed as a potential threat to a submarine, but of course the small Navy security escort boat with the big guns does not sense irony, nor do they have a sense of humor. The escort then started hailing individual boats as they came within sight to make sure the skipper knew to stay back 500 yards. It was eventually our turn.
“To the white hulled boat outbound in the channel near the incoming submarine, this is the Navy Security Boat”
“Navy Security Boat, this is See Level.”
“See Level, this is Navy Security Boat – what are your intentions?”
Fortunately, Dave was on the radio instead of me because I don’t think my brain could have stopped my tongue from replying, ‘Well, sir, once I’ve saved enough for the down payment on a house I plan on marrying your daughter as soon as possible.’
Of course, Dave responded much more professionally while I rolled my eyes and giggled. Probably why I have not been given VHF radio privileges yet.
Ill o’Comm 3: Specificity can be open to interpretation
Of course, hearing and understanding are two different things.
We’re still inexperienced enough that we like to have as much info as possible about a marina we’re pulling into well in advance. I usually call on the cell about 30 min before arrival to ask to which dock we are going and any advice on approach and rigging fenders. Then as we get within sight of the marina Dave calls them on the VHF for final directions. Most of the time they are very precise, but not always. Coming into Solomons Island I had called on the phone and talked to a young lady, and her directions as I understood them were that we were going to tie up ‘behind the big white Ocean Reef boat’ and confirmed a starboard tie. Well that’s pretty non-specific on several levels, since: 1. almost ALL boats are white 2. I couldn’t decipher if “Ocean Reef’ was the name of the boat or the brand, and 3. when she said ‘behind’ I had an image of a face dock where we would be tying up in a single file line at the stern of whatever this Ocean Reef was. But we had such a bad connection that I just went with the starboard tie and figured Dave could get more specifics when he called on the radio. As we got within 200 yards, it didn’t look like there was a face dock at all, thus confusing us. Dave calls on the radio asking for more specific instructions, and the same young woman seemed more preoccupied with explaining that she had already talked to ‘his wife’ than giving us instructions. We finally determined we were actually supposed to go in a slip, so would need to back in and tie up to port, and Dave had to maneuver in a small space to reposition us and stall while I ran around moving everything I had just rigged over to the other side. Not our smoothest approach, but we did get in just fine eventually. A lesson in the illusion that all parties are on the same page and speaking the same language.
Ill o’Comm 4: Mindreading is an effective mode of communication
Dave and I have this ongoing battle around nouns. I believe that all purpose nouns like ‘thingamajig,’ ‘whachhamacallit,’ and ‘that’ have a role as a placeholder – but a brief one – until one can come up with a more descriptive and specific noun. To be fair, he comes by it honestly and has a much better grasp of the subtle definitive properties of how the word is pronounced as his mom was famous for these terms – and he always knew what she meant! I can’t tell you how many times she would be working on something when we were over at their house, and she would ask him to hand her a ‘thingie’ and he would walk over and pick up the precise one she wanted from a bunch of tools spread out on the table. It was some kind of freaky telepathy like ET and Elliot. Unfortunately, I have not acquired that sixth sense so our conversations go a little differently.
“Karen, I can’t let go of this so would you hand me a thingamajig?”
“That thingamajig there.”
“I need more.”
“Look where I’m pointing.”
“I’m in the freakin’ other cabin! I can’t see you. I need another noun.”
“The long thingamajig.”
“That was an adjective, but it’s a start. Let’s go with Names of Long Tools for $500.”
By this time he is justifiably annoyed and frustrated with my sarcasm, not to mention precariously perched on something with cramping muscles making him even more impatient. We eventually get to the correct tool either by me offering him the wrong one until I get lucky, or providing names of what I see in front of me until we score a hit.
The thing about being on a boat is that though most of the typical episodes of marital miscommunication may be funny in retrospect, they can also potentially be disastrous if you can’t work your way through them quickly. And since they usually occur when you’re pulling into or out of a marina or anchorage, you’re on full display to anyone within view or earshot. But as mortifying as it might be, most other boaters are going to watch with a healthy dose of been-there-done-that humility. We’ve watched others such as the couple in Georgetown above and learned what NOT to do (not to mention that Dave and I just don’t talk to each other like that in the first place), but we’re under no illusions that we’re not going to watch the show some days and be the show on others. We just hope the former outpaces the latter as we continue. At least if I’m going to be the star of the show, I’ll be fashionable in my headset gear.
Watch out, Tik Tok, because a Middle Age Giant Bug is taking over this Thingamajig!