PS Advisor: 02/01/04
Anchoring Hand Signals
Your recent article on anchoring [December 2003] prompted a discussion among friends. Is there an agreed-upon set of hand signals for anchoring, between the anchorer on the foredeck and the helmsman, or does everyone just make up their own?
Far too few people make up their own hand signals, or borrow them from elsewhere, for that matter, relying instead on the power of the vox humana, usually at Volume 50, in a crowded anchorage. It can be amusing to observe, but really, a well-coordinated crew operating silently is even more of a pleasure to watch.
There are no hard and fast rules about these things—whatever you and your crew agree on and practice can work, but remember that once the anchoring spot or mooring has been agreed-upon, it's the person on the foredeck who should be controlling the boat. The helmsman needs to follow the signals—they're not merely "suggestions." Both contributors need to have a good sense of how the boat will carry through the water in neutral in various conditions, and what the engine can be expected to do to the momentum when shifted in and out of gear at low speed.
There are certain signals that make sense because they're easy to see in most (daylight) conditions, and to remember. Some are borrowed from groups with more at stake than a botched mooring pick-up—the police and military tactical squads, heavy-equipment operators, and so on.
An arm raised with a clenched fist held still in the air generally means "Freeze" or "Hold it." To our way of thinking it means "Go to neutral, hold your helm steady, and wait for my next signal." It's not the same as "Stop," which is usually signaled with a palm held backward, and which could be interpreted to mean "Put the boat in reverse and stop it." We don't use "Stop," because at the dead-slow speeds used to anchor or pick up a mooring, you can generally get by with forward, reverse, and neutral.
One good signal for "Keep coming ahead" is a hand held steady with a finger pointed up. "Go in reverse" would be signaled by the hand held steady with a finger pointing down. Neutral, as we said, would be the clenched fist. You can signal forward and reverse with simple directional waves, too, but stationary hands have a higher cool factor for the watching throng. As long as all is understood and there's no shouting, it all works.
There are few variations when it comes to direction. You can use the other hand to point, or the same hand you use for throttle-control, when it's not signaling speed changes. Either way, hold your signaling arm above shoulder height so that your body doesn't block the view from the helm. Point at the place in (or above) the water where the helmsman should steer. In practice, this usually means pointing towards the anchoring spot or mooring itself, but that should be agreed upon, because on some boats it means "This is the direction I want you to go," regardless of whether it's directly at the objective. A failure of mutual understanding on that point can be very entertaining.
Those are the basics. You can vary them, or add as many more as you like—for "faster" (jab the upright finger upwards a few times) or "slower," (jab downwards) "the anchor is down" or "the anchor is up," "depth of the water," and so on. The basics will suffice for most situations, and there's a danger in adding so many signals that the basics are confused.
It never hurts to take a swing around the anchorage before your manuever, and discuss what's going to happen before the mooring person heads for the bow. Which is more powerful, wind or current? That will determine your approach, so that you can head directly into the stronger influence. Make sure the anchor is ready to drop, with enough rode faked out on deck. If you're picking up a mooring, have the boathook ready to grab. Or you can use it as a pointer.
One other thing. Make up a quiet little signal to let the helmsman know that the maneuver didn't work. You missed the mooring ball. Or the anchor is going to drag all the way to Las Vegas. The signal means, "Let's pretend that none of this happened, gather up our forces, and take another whack at it." Shaking the head sadly will work, but it's a giveaway.