A seafarer is never at the front or the back of a ship; they are at the bow or the stern. They are never on the left or right side, but rather port or starboard. They are never in their bedroom or the kitchen, but they might be in their cabin or in the galley. A ship’s speed is not measured in miles or kilometres per hour, but rather in knots. A ship, of course, is referred often as “she” and not always as “it”.
These are the things we might think of when we hear a phrase like “Maritime English”.
However, there’s a lot more to it than learning a few new words.
Shipping is perhaps the most international kind of business there is.
We live in a world where a German-built ship, with a Canadian owner, sailing under a Panamanian flag, perhaps managed from Russia and chartered by a company in Ghana, can carry Indian cargo to the USA, with a Chinese port call along the way.
The crew could be just as multinational, ratings from the Philippines might serve a Russian bridge team. In such an international context, communication is key.
A standardised, simplified form of maritime communication is a must.
The beginnings of standard maritime English
The Standard Marine Navigational Vocabulary (SMNV) was adopted by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in 1977 and published as a 44-page booklet with standard phrases.
The first edition of this booklet didn’t cover every possible situation, though, and functioned much as a signal book would. Times had moved on, however, from semaphore, light signals, and even Morse code. Ships were using powerful radio!
In 1981 came SEASPEAK, an ambitious project headed by mariners and language experts, and steered partly by the IMO.
The project found that any standard form of English for the maritime sector would need to consider the purpose of the communication, the topics of the conversation, the ways in which information was communicated, points of confusion and other factors.
SEASPEAK was highly influential, and the SMNV was revised in 1983 and 1985.
Since 2001, The modern-day SMCP (Standard Marine Communication Phrases) have replaced the SMNV, and provide a structured, easy-to-follow means of communicating information on board, from ship to ship or ship to shore.
Examples of SMCP
A user of SMCP would not say “can I enter fairway?” nor would they say “may I?” “should I?” “could I?” and so on. Rather, they would say “QUESTION. Do I have permission to enter the fairway?”
“QUESTION” is a message marker and makes the purpose of the communication clear right from the start: the sentence that follows will be a question, and will require an answer, such as:
“ANSWER. You have permission to enter the fairway.”
The list of possible markers includes INSTRUCTION, ADVICE, WARNING, INFORMATION, QUESTION, ANSWER, REQUEST, and INTENTION.
|Instruction||“INSTRUCTION. Do not increase speed.”||Instructions are binding and must be followed as far as possible. Authorities such as a naval vessel or VTS station may give instructions.|
|Advice||“ADVICE. Stand by on VHF Channel one six.”||Advice is not binding. The receiver can decide whether to follow the advice or not.|
|Warning||“WARNING. Obstruction in the fairway.”||Used to inform others of danger.|
|Information||“INFORMATION. My present draught is twelve, one two metres .”||Used to inform others of other facts.|
|Question||“QUESTION. Do you require a pilot?”||Used to indicate questions.|
|Answer||“ANSWER. Yes, I require a pilot.”||Used to indicate answers.|
|Request||“REQUEST. I require tug assistance.”||Used to ask for action from others.|
|Intention||“INTENTION. I will reduce my speed.”||Used to inform others of immediate navigational action.|
There are also special purpose markers such as MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY , PAN-PAN PAN-PAN PAN-PAN , and SECURITE SECURITE SECURITE, which provide three levels of urgency for communicating dangers and emergencies. MAYDAY is the most urgent, and SECURITE is the least severe.
The SMCP also provide standard phrases for communication on board ship. Everything from bridge team communication:
“The present position is Prince Consort Buoy. We are leaving the Precautionary Area. Course over ground is two niner zero degrees.”
to passenger announcements:
“This is your Captain speaking. We have a minor fire in the galley. There is no immediate danger to crew, passengers or vessel – and there is no reason to be alarmed.”
The SMCP primarily concern the safe operation and navigation of a vessel, whether communicating from ship to ship, such as statements of intention, ship to shore, perhaps arranging a berth or anchorage or on board ship, tasking crew or informing passengers.
There are, of course, other instances of specialised English, which come under the umbrella of “maritime English” such as English for marine engineering, English for maritime law and so on.
Not only that, but English isn’t the only possible language to be used at sea and therefore not the only “maritime language”. The IMO lists English, French and Spanish as its “official working languages”, though its “official languages” also include Arabic, Chinese and Russian as well.
Maritime law such as The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) states that, if everyone directly involved can speak a common language other than English, vessels don’t have to use English as their working language when making bridge-to-bridge or bridge-to-shore safety communications.
It is quite possible, then, for a French bridge team to speak French to a French-Canadian port authority, at least in theory.
In practice, however, The International Maritime Organisation has created a model course for English, (Model Course 3.17 – Maritime English) but no such course for Maritime Spanish, Maritime Arabic or any other maritime language.
Model Course 3.17 incorporates not just the SMCP but also details an English course to fulfil different roles on board, including:
- maintaining equipment and machinery
- using various lights and signals
- reading and interpretation weather charts and maps
- providing first aid
- applying maritime law concerning staff (STCW) and pollution (MARPOL)
- keeping watch
So what is Maritime English, really?
In its simplest form, it’s the English needed to work in Maritime or directly related sectors. Most commonly, it’s the English needed to work on board a ship or in port. In terms of the IMO, it’s the SMCP and Model Course 3.17.
But it’s more than that, Maritime English is an umbrella which covers everything from the law, to history, to business and logistics, to language quirks (just why can’t ships be men?) and even further beyond.
Whether you work on board, in port, or even for a maritime or logistics company further inland, flexible education can further your career.
That’s why I recommend the International Maritime Management Master’s degree. What’s your next career step? Why not check out our distance learning course at Jade University of Applied Sciences..
About the author : Russell Henry Greenwood is a Researcher and English lecturer at the Jade Hochschule. where he researches and designs LSP curricula, testing materials, and teaching techniques.. Russell also teaches ESP (English for Specific Purposes) to students, particularly Maritime English and Logistical English..