The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Good Communication—A Vital Key To Cruising Happiness

5- Seeing penguins in thier natural habitat was one of the goals of our expediton on Sila (2)

Last spring my family and I met a delightful family of four in the Caribbean. Like us, they had started their sailing adventure in the spring of 2013. It was not long into the conversation, though, that we realized they were having a very different sort of experience. In the time that we had sailed 36,000 miles, including months in the high latitudes, they had sailed 6,000 miles in the Caribbean.

I was struck by the realization that their family was just as happy as our family, but that it was a good thing we were not together. That is, what worked well for them would not have worked for us and vice versa.

In both cases, clear expectations about the expedition goals facilitated family happiness. In our case, our stated goal was to see penguins and polar bears in their natural habitats. Not a goal that is possible to realize in the Caribbean!

Articulate Your Goals

So, before you go voyaging as a couple or as a family, it is important to discuss each person’s goals and desires. As John noted in his post “Going Cruising—Being Realistic About You”, it is a deeply personal process to look in the mirror and think carefully and honestly about your abilities, strengths, weaknesses and desires.

But once you have done that, communicating those realizations to your partner or family and working out expedition goals together is essential. And, once set, revisiting your expedition goals periodically and formally will enhance everyone’s enjoyment.

Laziness Never Goes Unpunished

In a variety of posts, John has eloquently asserted that “Laziness never goes unpunished” with regard to neglecting seemingly small things that added up to a larger failure of equipment. I would suggest that this same theory holds doubly true for communication among crew members.

In our case, Sila is just too small a space to avoid discussing concerns, resolving conflicts, and, last but not least, finding the joy in one another’s company. Regular communication is a skill that, like every other skill on a cruising boat, needs to be developed and practiced.

Conflict Is Scary

It is probably worth noting here that there is a difference between cruising as a couple and cruising as a family. With no place to hide, a conflict or disagreement between two people has an exponentially larger impact when there are more people on the boat.

For younger children in particular, conflict between parents can be scary, all the more so on a boat. Everyone’s best intention may be to avoid conflict in the first place, but if you sail together long enough, you are sure to have at least a few moments of discontent; therefore, as parents, having a plan in place for how to resolve conflict when it arises is vital.

Elements For Successful Communication

Deciding on our shared goals, a commitment to revisit them, one skipper, regular crew meetings, and a formal system for providing ongoing feedback are the primary elements that contribute to successful long-term communication on Sila.

One Skipper

6- We have just one skipper on Sila- Christopher

First is the simple idea that there is one skipper on Sila. While we are welcome to question him and even disagree with his decisions, we agree up front to listen and do what he asks us to do when things get complicated.

For example, when we are circling in the outer harbour, Christopher wants to know if his docking plan makes sense. But approaching the finger is not the time for discussion or even suggestions, just a simple exchange of information such as the distance between the dock and the anchor.

As an outspoken extravert, it is not always easy for me to hold my tongue, but knowing that we will debrief the situation later helps makes it easier.

7- Use---Clear communication before entering the harbor makes docking easier on everyone

The skipper does an incredible service to his/her own leadership by debriefing the crew after any challenging situation. Christopher often starts by asking if we have any ideas about how we could have made that docking situation easier or if there are suggestions for next time.

It is also a good time to own one’s actions and clear the air; for example, “I am sorry I yelled at you. I did not think you heard me and I was really scared that we were going to hit the other boat. Next time I will be more clear about how much space you have.”

Crew Meetings

Another system that supports good communication on Sila is crew meeting, which happens most evenings when we are on passage and a couple of times a week when coastal cruising. This is a time when we all sit together and discuss openly how it is going for each of us.

When there are problems, we address them directly and revisit them in the next crew meeting as needed. For example, we have used crew meeting as a time to raise concerns about the lack of cleanliness in the head, which resulted in creating a plan for who was going to clean it and how often.

But crew meeting is not all about head cleaning and discussing difficult situations, it is also a time to share the joy of offshore sailing. We do this simply by being together, but also by actively asking each person to share a highlight from the last twenty-four hours, such as seeing a pod of dolphins while everyone slept, listening to a particularly interesting podcast, or sailing the boat well in tricky conditions.

Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI)

A third element of our communication system is a commitment to good feedback. We use the Center for Creative Leadership‘s SBI model as a framework because we have found that the pattern makes it easier for each of us to give and to receive effective feedback.

First, you ask permission to give someone feedback (there is no point in continuing if he/she is not in the space to listen), then begin with a short description of the situation. For example, “Today when I was trying to secure the shoreline…”

You then describe the behavior that the other person exhibited, “…you started screaming at me to do something that I could not understand.”

And then you describe the impact: “Your tone of voice and the fact that I could not hear the words you were saying made me panic and then I really struggled with the shoreline.”

Finally, you acknowledge your contribution to the problem and propose a plan for moving forward: “I get flustered when you yell at me, because it feels like you are angry. Maybe going forward, we can remind each other that we may need to yell to be heard so I know in advance that you are not mad at me.”

Having this simple, shared framework makes it much easier to focus on the behaviours that we can change, not our character or personalities.

Our two children were 9 and 10 years old when we first moved on to Sila. The beauty of the SBI model is its simplicity. Even back then the boys were able to utilize it to resolve the inevitable conflict that will arise between brothers living together in a small space.

The Third Key To Happiness

The final key to our family’s happiness while cruising is food. As a family, we put a lot of energy and effort into eating well and enjoy at least two meals a day together whether we are coastal cruising or in the middle of an offshore passage. In two upcoming articles, I will share some tips on provisioning and food storage (without refrigeration!) that I wish I had known when we first started out.


Let us know your techniques for good communication on board.

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You’ve hit the nail right on it’s head there Molly. Thanks for the really good article.
I can imagine very well the potential anguish you allude to, and the anguish avoided as per your explanation of how to learn from circumstances when communication hasn’t worked as well as it should. As an experienced cruising couple we still don’t always get it right, but we keep learning, as you have, how to try and do it better the next time. Sailing without well-honed communication skills spoils the pleasure, and could be dangerous in the wrong situation. I agree, the importance of clearing the air cannot be stressed highly enough! Looking forward to the next installment on food already…!

Molly Barnes

Thanks, Lou. I can say that it sure was nice to have a framework and a pattern to follow to clear the air. And frankly, we try to give each other SBI feedback all the time- including positive reinforcement. I know that when Christopher says thanks, it means a lot more to me when he makes that extra effort to thank me specifically for something I did that had a particular impact on him.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Molly,
Most couples way under-estimate (in my observation) the challenge of what I have come to call, “partnering up” that is necessary in the first few years of cruising. Cruising demands a type of partnership that is rare in everyday life. Most land based life just does not come even close to the: inter-dependence, the need to be on the same page, the down side of a poor decision, the need to communicate effectively and sometimes speedily, the need to plan ahead, the “attached-at-the-hip”edness, that is part of everyday life on a cruising boat. Add to that the occasional danger, the real risks of damage to your home and self, the uncertainty of the early years and you have many of the ingredients for a relationship disaster which can be largely softened by utilizing the communication skills you are espousing.
Well done.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Marc Dacey

I would venture to say that the failure to acknowledge these communication aspects, plus an imbalance in cruising skills and comfort with the reality of a small boat (they are all small in rough stuff) on big oceans is why Panama has so many great deals on cruise-ready boats and divorce lawyers in Florida have burning ears.

Molly, a very interesting piece and approach. My wife and I have done separate deliveries in order to obtain different experiences. I would say that “there’s only one skipper” is provisional to a point in that if I am off-watch and she is on and the call comes to turn out for reefing or, really, whatever she feels is necessary, she’s the skipper for that watch and I can question her judgement or needs later. Or not. Point being, the person left in charge is really in charge, and the off-watch must have confidence in their decisions and actions based on their experience and seamanship. Otherwise, when would the rest of the crew sleep?

Molly Barnes


thanks for your comments. I guess I would like to clarify what I meant by there being only one skipper. On Sila, Christopher is in charge. This does not mean he is on the job 24 hours a day by any means. When I am on watch, or even when our 12 year old son is on watch, Christopher can and does sleep soundly. And part of why he is able to do so is because he trusts his crew. He trusts us to handle the boat appropriately and also to seek help from each other or from him if it gets complicated. The idea that there is only one skipper is to help all of us when there is a disagreement about how to proceed, particularly in a situation that calls for immediate action. We make the vast majority of our decisions on Sila by consensus but in the end, if we cannot agree, we have one skipper. I hope that helps to clarify what I meant.

Marc Dacey

Yes, it does, thanks. It’s more or less what I meant, too.

Molly Barnes

You make a great point about underestimating the challenges of working and living so closely together. It does not come easily to everyone, that is for sure! So any tools that can help us communicate more effectively are appreciated. Thanks for the added insight.

Rob Gill

Thanks Molly, good read with interesting crew side observations for skippers. With our crew grown up and only occasional “guests” now, it reminded me of something our daughter initiated as a mid-teen (now 24 crewing on a superyacht). For my birthday and/or Christmas, instead of a store bought present she would give me a book of hand-made vouchers, each lovingly produced. There were all sorts from “clean the car”, to “cook dinner”. But there would always be three or four “I (daughter) commit to stop arguing now and cheer up” cards.
Now she could be somewhat wilful at times, (not sure where she got that because her Mum is the opposite…), so in the heat of a blazing family row I would retire, retrieve a voucher and solemnly hand it over. There would be a moment of silence, then remembrance for something given perhaps 12 months previously, and then we would all crack-up laughing, the heat dissipated, and the problem our new focus. Being her gift, she was honour bound to comply, so it never failed and they were brilliant conflict resolution tools. They were also the best gifts I ever received. I still have one as a keep safe – planning to hand it back at her wedding!
Happy cruising,

Molly Barnes

I absolutely LOVE the “I commit to stop arguing now and cheer up” cards.” I can’t decide if I want to make and give them or if I want my kids to do it! Either way, what a wonderful way to shift the mood and remind everyone of what is really important. Thanks for the tip!

Bill Attwood

Lovely article Molly, and a super comment from Rob. Imke and I cruise as a couple, and pretty well follow your methods, although perhaps not so formally. We´ve discussed your article, and particularly the SBI method and it has helped us understand why we get on well on board. It is also a good refresher course.
How did you develop your approach? Was it something whichdeveloped over time, or did it come from the skills and experience that you and Christopher developed as educators?
Yours aye,

Molly Barnes

Hi Bill,

Christopher and I started the High Mountain Institute which runs a variety of programs including the flagship which is a 17 week semester program for high school students. Up to forty-five 16 and 17 year-olds come to HMI for one-half of a school year and complete a rigorous college prep academic course load while also participating in three 2-week backpacking expeditions in Colorado and Utah and engaging in a small, intentional community. (see for more information)

At HMI, we taught leadership and communication skills and drew on some of the great work being done at the Center for Creative Leadership and also at NOLS (the National Outdoor Leadership School), where we both had worked in the past. So the short answer is that we had been teaching SBI feedback and other communication models to our students for 20 years so it has become our default approach even with each other. And we actively taught the basics of the models to our sons when they were still about 7 and 8 years old.

I am a believer! Things like communication are easy when the going is smooth. When it gets challenging, I think it is really nice to have a system to lean on.

Heather Kent

Thank you for this article. It is very specific and validating.

Westbrook Murphy

Here’s a premier example of the result of poor onboard communications: the grounding at 12 knots of a 57,000 ton battleship within sight of Norfolk, Virginia’s U.S. Naval base. The compelling minute-by-minute narrative leads to the author’s conclusions:
“When none of your officers have any clue about what’s going on it’s probably time to back up, regroup, and have a quick pow-wow to inform them of what you should have informed them about in the first place.”
“Captain Brown. . . basically ordered them to run aground through sheer arrogance and refusal to listen to anything anyone was trying to tell him.”

Rob Gill

Interesting “how not to” thanks Westbrook. I can say from very personal experience it is incredibly difficult to successfully contradict your senior officer at sea – the more senior, the more challenging. You risk the vessel, crew and your career (possibly also your liberty) by challenging a direct order or course of action. The navy and maritime law enshrines the concept of one captain, one person ultimately responsible, one throat to choke. It is one that most sailors (as Molly confirms) default to.
But what if the skipper is making an error of judgement like Captain Brown (and a past captain of mine – it happens more than you might think)? You clearly have a responsibility to act decisively and communicate clearly. I have often wondered (in hindsight) how the crew can best make themselves understood at a time of stress, even real danger, and even more so when the Captain is so sure of their actions? Molly?
Best regards,

Westbrook Murphy

Sailing two decades ago on the U.S. East Coast from Cape Cod to Cape May my daughters prevented me from sailing into New Jersey. They told me we were heading too westerly. They had the setting sun to back them up. Sure enough–I’d entered the wrong latitude in the GPS by which I’d set our course. Nothing like an alert crew.

Courtney Edwards

Lovely article, I appreciate that it has clear examples of how your team does things. Yes to “one captain,” which is me (a woman, I know, quite shocking for a lot of people I meet on the docks), and I like your discussion of shouting to be heard vs shouting to be an a**hole. My partner and I have to remind each other that on a boat being loud is often necessary and it is not personal.

Something we do on our boat is what we call “Three Things.” At the end of the day we each share something that we are grateful for, something that we are proud of, and something that was funny. The topics are based around the idea/science of ‘Gratitude Journals’, which is basically that if you write down things you are grateful for you’ll generally be a happier person. But I added in “proud” and “funny” after listening to some podcasts about the science of happiness ( It’s awkward at first, but you’ll start keeping an eye out during your day for those three things and then you become more mindful of those positive parts of your life as they happen. It’s also a quick way to get an idea about how the other person (or people) felt about their day.

John Harries

Hi Courtney,

Great recommendation, thanks.