Language, whether spoken or written is a means of communication. However, lack of understanding and incorrect interpretation of language could become a barrier to communication and can result in the desired outcome not being achieved, argues Mr. Chilukuri Maheshwar, Engineering faculty, AEMA, Karjat, Mumbai, India.
anguage barriers are a common challenge in the shipping environment with multinational, multilingual and multicultural crew. What native speakers often don’t realize is that their own way of speaking the language ‘correctly’ can be as big a barrier as the listener’s limited comprehension of the language, thus creating one of the greatest barriers to effective communication. Putting up an individual’s personal roadblocks can lead to ineffective communication leading to accidents and loss of life and property. On the other hand, using simple words such that the listener understands what you are saying, even if it is not ‘correct English’ may not yield you high marks in the IELTS test, but will prevent many accidents at sea.
On 7 Nov 2007, when COSCO BUSAN collided with the Delta tower of Golden Bridge at San Francisco, it spilt 53,500 gallons of fuel oil into the sea, contaminated 26 miles of coastal shoreline, killed more than 2500 birds of about 50 species, delayed crab-fishing season. The monetary loss was US$2.1 million for the ship, US$1.5 million for the bridge and US$70 million for the environmental clean-up. One of the causes was miscommunication, misunderstanding and misinterpretation due to the language barrier between the American pilot and the Chinese Master. The audio transcript in the investigation report suggests that there was confusion between the centre of the dredge and centre of the channel, exacerbated by language and communication gaps, unfamiliaritiy with the ECDIS in use, radar clutter and dense fog.
In 1991, the Stanyslaw Kulcinsky allided with the Kattwyk bridge on Elbe river
The STANYSLAW KULCINSKY allided with the Kattwyk bridge on the Elbe riverin 1991. The allision occurred when German pilots using shore based radar assistance in fog were speaking with each other in German only, a language naturally unknown to Polish Master. Every deck officer has faced a similar when he wondered what the pilot, tug Master and port authority were talking to each other in their native language. Since these local language communications take place continuously, and the pilot’s own command of a common language with the bridge team may be limited, one wonders how this obstacle can be overcome. A common myth is that English is the common working language in the maritime sector. In reality, pilots, stevedores and port authorities in most Francophone countries including thirty one African countries normally speak French, those in Central and South America speak either Spanish or Portuguese. English language skills as well as communication skills vary dramatically across the world and even within the same pilotage district. The most over-used phrase in this context remains “no problem”. Pilots in Japan on the other hand have mastered the art of clear efficient communication, using a combination of unmistakable actions, standard operating procedures, ready cards with written words, figures and images, irrespective of their own or the crew’s personal English language skills.
Cultural differences too have a role to play. In 1996, the WEALTHY RIVER, a ship manned with Chinese seafarers was under pilotage in a dredged channel outside the entrance jetty of Charleston Harbour, South Carolina, and approaching the Pilots disembarkation position. The American pilot indicated, as a matter of courtesy that the pilot boat was alongside to port. The Chinese captain, who spoke limited English, misinterpreted this as a command to turn to hard to port, and ordered the helmsman to do so. The vessel, which had been in the centre of the channel, swung to port and proceeded towards the north edge of the channel. Before the situation could be corrected the ship had left the dredged channel and grounded almost immediately. The passage had been taking place in the dark. The Pilot had been unable to see the helmsman turn the wheel to port and had been unable to understand the conversation between master and helmsman.
However, communication gaps can even exist between seafarers of the same nationality. The collision between SAMCO EUROPE and MSC PRESTIGE in December 2007 occurred due to a misunderstanding between officers of the same nationality, both with reasonably good English language skills. Misunderstandings commonly occur between pilots and tug Masters who not only speak the same language, but also know each other personally.
Communication gaps contributed to the collision between Sea Daniel and Testbank
On 22nd July 1980, the bulk carrier, the SEADANIEL, was inward bound in the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), while the containership TESTBANK was outward bound, both vessels with Pilots on board. The channel was narrow and required them to pass quite close together. The bridge of SEADANIEL was manned by one British and three Chinese nationals. The bridge of TESTBANK was manned by mostly Germans. The passage of the SEADANIEL was without incident until the two vessels approached each other. As the ships were approaching, the orders given by the pilot on the SEADANIEL were not followed as accurately as he would have liked. This created a situation that resulted in the pilot raising his voice and the Chinese helmsman becoming nervous and failing to understand the instruction given. As the vessels approached each other, the SEADANIEL took an unexpected turn to port due to an erroneous rudder response to the pilot’s starboard rudder order. This resulted in a collision with the TESTBANK, raking her down the port side. The probable cause of the incorrect manoeuvre was the application of port rudder by the helmsman of the SEADANIEL when the pilot had ordered starboard rudder.
In 1996, a miscommunication between the Pilot and the Master of the BRIGHTFIELD may also have precipitated an allision between the vessel and a quayside shopping center on the New Orleans Riverwalk. When the Pilot first boarded the vessel it appeared that the Master could understand him fully. Everything continued normally until a problem occurred with the mechanics of the vessel and when the Pilot queried the Master as to what the problem was he received no reply. As they approached the quay the order for full astern prior to the impact occurring, was not carried out, however with the little control that remained the Pilot managed to avoid a number of docked vessels. The initial investigation into the accident focused on a number of issues including that of whether language barriers between the American River Pilot and the Chinese crew affected responses. The Pilot suggested that the Chinese master spoke only a ‘kind of broken English’ and that he had not received any response to his commands to put the engine full astern, away from the riverbank. But then, as any seafarer will testify, it is broken English, peppered with local words that allows them to communicate with people across the world efficiently. One of our colleagues attempted to use the IMO Standard Marine Communication Phrases with the VTIS in one of his voyages as attest case. They could not understand what he spoke most of the time, and he had to revert to commonly used marine phrases to get his message across.