Published: 1 February 2019

It may seem to be stating the obvious to say that communication between members of the crew is very important, but a recent case investigated by the club shows how a simple misunderstanding can have very serious consequences.

A chemical tanker was underway from South Africa to the east coast of the US when a storm hit. There were winds of 25 knots, seas of 2.5m, swells of 4m and significant wave heights of 4.5m. The freeboard on the bow was approximately 7m.

The following morning, the chief mate instructed the bosun to walk to the forward catwalk – but not to the bow – to see if there had been any damage during the heavy night. The bosun reported that the mooring lines on the winches had become loose and needed to be secured. The chief mate told the bosun to call the bridge to ask if the ship could slow down or alter course to make it safe to work on the bow.

The bosun called the bridge and spoke to the third mate who in turn asked the master for instructions. The master told the third mate to tell the bosun not to go forward but to wait until the afternoon and better weather. The third mate gave the order to the bosun.

The bosun then called the bridge again and told the third mate he was going forward only to tie down the mooring lines but he would not be working the winches. The third mate replied ‘Okay’. This was where the communication broke down:

  • What the third mate meant by ‘Okay’ was that the master’s order had not changed and so the bosun, by going forward, was taking the risk on his own.
  • However, the bosun interpreted ‘Okay’ to mean that he had permission to go forward and tie down the mooring lines.

The bosun then ordered two ABs to go forward to tie down the mooring lines on winches but during the operation two large waves hit the bow and knocked both ABs over. One of them sustained severe injuries to his back which have left him severely paralysed.


It is clear that there had been a breakdown in communication between the third mate and the bosun. The captain had clearly said to the third mate that the bosun was not to go forward until the afternoon and better weather. The third mate should then have clearly ordered the bosun not to go forward. Using the ambiguous word ‘Okay’ was not sufficient. Always make sure that any instructions are clearly communicated and understood.