The Blue View - Communicating with Hand Signals

When we first started cruising, one of the things we discovered was that there was a frequent need to communicate with each other at a distance. This happened most frequently when we were dropping or raising the anchor, but also occurred when I went up the mast or when one of us was positioned at the bow trying to direct us through a narrow channel, or around hazards.

In the early days, the typical procedure for raising anchor was for Marcie to go forward to the bow and operate the windlass while I maneuvered Nine of Cups. It takes a little teamwork to get the anchor up, especially when we are in a crowded anchorage and the wind is blowing. The wind causes the chain to be taut, which in turns makes the windlass work harder. I try to motor slowly in the direction of the anchor to take the tension off the chain while Marcie brings in the slack. When all the slack chain has been taken in and we are directly over the anchor, depending on the bottom type, it sometimes takes some finesse to break the anchor free. When it does finally break free, I need to hold position while Marcie brings the anchor up enough to ensure we don't snag it on anything - like someone else's anchor rode or a more shallow spot. Once she has the anchor in view, I can begin maneuvering around the other boats while Marcie secures the anchor. During this process, Marcie may need me to stop while she knocks the pile of chain down or to clean the chain of mud, kelp or seaweed.

Through it all, Marcie and I need to communicate quite a bit of information. She needs to tell me when to motor forward, how fast and in what direction. She needs to tell me when to stop, when the anchor has broken free, and when it is in view. Our initial method of communicating was by shouting at each other. When the wind was blowing, the engine was on, and Marcie was facing away from me, she needed to shout REALLY LOUDLY for me to hear her. Even then, I didn't always hear what she said, so I would have to yell into the wind as LOUDLY as I could, asking her to repeat what she said. There are a whole number of reasons why this wasn't ideal. The number one reason is that when we were yelling at each other, even when we started out with the best of intentions, we both got irritated and then angry. Even when things did go well, we spent the next few hours being snippy with each other. The next biggest reason was that voices really carry over the water. Even if we couldn't understand what the other was saying, everyone else within a half mile could hear us yelling at each other. Sometimes, this would be a source of amusement for the other yachties, but more often I'm sure it was quite irritating, especially when we were trying to leave quietly at the break of dawn.

We thought about getting small portable radios or one of the wireless intercom systems. But in the end, we decided to devise our own system of hand signals for communicating with each other. We needed to be able to communicate each command using only one hand, and each signal must be clearly discernible to the other at a fair distance. These are the hand signals we use:

motor forward




anchor free

anchor in sight

chain is taut

There have been a number of times when one of us was on the bow or part way up the mast to improve visibility while maneuvering around hazards. The atolls in the South Pacific which were often strewn with numerous uncharted coral heads are an example. We use all the same hand signals, but added one more to the list:

adjust course

We have a few other hand signals we use occasionally that aren't actually documented. They translate roughly to the following:

“Uhh – sweetie, I think you may not have recognized my last 6 signals and you will be embarrassed to know that you have just run over the mooring ball...”

or, “Actually honey, I did see your last 6 hand signals, and while I found your last hand gesture quite endearing, you may not have noticed that the wind has piped up just a skosh ...”

and my favorite, “That was quite a humorous response, love. While pondering it, I thought of a new storage location for the boathook I'm holding...”