Communicating with Arm Signals

Written by Captains Chris & Alyse Caldwell
Written by Chris & Alyse Caldwell

We work with many new boat owners who want to know how to anchor without yelling. We all agree that good communication is the key to a happy crew.  But while we are cruising coaches, marriage counseling is a bit out of our wheelhouse so, here we will teach you basic and easy to remember communication skills while anchoring. We have another article on communication that works on boats and with life in general but let’s stay focused on anchoring right now.

Some boaters like the electronic headset walkie-talkies while others use basic hand signals. Both techniques have pros and cons so we’ll touch on the technology first. While terrific for communicating when sight lines are compromised, headsets require batteries and batteries fail.  Many have some sort of wire connecting from the battery pack to the headset. This wire easily snags as the mate is handling lines, fenders and other deckside chores. Sometimes the snag disconnects from the unit mid-sentence. Hmm. That’s a recipe for disaster when the other user doesn’t realize he is talking to dead air. But even if all works well, wind in the microphone or extra chatting can interrupt the focus at hand: anchoring communication.

You may think that a great fall back solution when the headsets fail could be use of hand signals. Well, we prefer to use ARM signals. After all, bigger is better right? Imagine watching your deckhand while recovering the anchor trying to guess what their hand signals really mean. Between the bending down and looking over the side at the anchor rode or hosing off the muddy rode, hands signals can get lost in the translation.

With big but basic ARM signals the helmsman can see through the vinyl flybridge windshield or pilothouse glass and better understand the commands. Simple concepts and consistent movements make everyone happy. Directions are clearly understood and correctly performed. An arm forward means go forward, arm pointed aft means go backwards. Arm pointed to the right or left means to steer the boat starboard or port. A fist held overhead means NEUTRAL. Since there are no brakes aboard a boat there is no STOP. The anchor handler must anticipate the motion of the boat to position the bow to easily recover the anchor.

What about boats with bow thrusters? We suggest you tap your hip and point the direction you want the bow thrusted toward. And let’s be creative, if the helmsman can not see your hip because of difficult sight lines from the helm to the bow, tap your ear as the clue to thrust port or starboard.

Captains Chris & Alyse Caldwell are USCG 100 ton Masters and Cruising Coaches who offer Personal Boat Training Online or Onboard your boat anywhere! The Caldwell’s help build your cruising confidence with hands-on training and with their training videos filled with tons of tips for the boater who loves learning.

If you have additional questions for Captain Chris or Captain Alyse, please email them at