What is Maritime English?

What is Maritime English?

Good communication is an essential part of manning and operating ships safely and efficiently. Communication needs to be clear whether it’s between an officer and a rating, between fellow crew members, between the vessel and those ashore, and even between two vessels.

Unfortunately, accidents can, and do, happen and one contributing factor to incidents at sea is poor or unclear communication.

But in an industry that is truly global and both shore-based employees and those working in seafarer jobs may speak any number of different languages, how can we ensure that messages and instructions are relayed in a concise and understandable manner?

speech bubble made from sheets of paper

This is why Maritime English was invented.

What is Maritime English?

English is the most widely spoken language in the world, if you count both native and non-native speakers. Therefore it makes sense that it is the official language of the maritime industry. If everyone is speaking the same language and using the same terminology it makes sense that communication will be clearer.

Having said that, if the English word or phrase isn’t deemed to be particularly helpful, it may be rejected in favor of a word from another commonly used language, such as French or Spanish.

In addition, using terms that are specific to shipping also rules out any potential misunderstandings. For example, if you tell someone that something is ‘on the right’ this is open to interpretation - particularly if the message is being relayed over radio. Their right? Your right? The right of the vessel?

feet standing in front of arrows that point left, right and straight ahead

It all depends on a number of factors - which way are they facing? Which direction is the ship traveling in? Using the word ‘starboard’ however leaves little room for confusion.

Read more: How to Communicate Better When Working in Seafarer Jobs

The same applies to ‘front’ and ‘back’. The directions may not be clear depending on the location of the speaker and listener. Replace ‘back’ with ‘aft’, ‘astern’ or ‘stern’ and it all becomes clearer - no matter what nationality the people involved are.

These specific words make up Maritime English, or Seaspeak as it is also sometimes referred to.

What are Standard Marine Communication Phrases?

Standard Marine Communication Phrases or SMCP is another, slightly more formal, name for Maritime English and Seaspeak. It was developed by the IMO - the International Maritime Organization - and is recognized as the international standard for all maritime communication.

man underwater giving a thumbs up sign

Seaspeak was formulated back in 1985 during a International Maritime Lecturers Association (IMLA) conference. The language continued to evolve and was duly merged with the Standard Maritime Navigational Vocabulary (SMNV) in 2001 to become the SMCP language that is used today.

What are some common Maritime English words?

As mentioned above, words such as front and back and left and right can be too ambiguous when talking about directions. After all, we’re not talking about simply taking a wrong turn, we’re talking about making a mistake that could result in huge consequences due to navigating an enormous vessel in the wrong direction.

For that reason, many Maritime English words are related to direction. For example:

  • Bow / fore - the front of, or towards the front of, a vessel
  • Stern / aft - the rear of, or towards the rear of, a vessel
  • Midships - the area between the bow and the stern on a vessel
  • Port - the left hand side of a vessel when facing the bow
  • Starboard - the right hand side of a vessel when facing the bow
graphic showing port and starboard and the stern of a boat

Other words are related to parts of the vessel and use Maritime English so that everyone knows what is being spoken about. These include:

  • Hull - the body or shell of the vessel
  • Portholes - the windows in a vessel’s hull
  • Keel - the bottom of the boat as it runs from bow to stern; the backbone of the ship
  • Deck - a level on a ship; a permanent layer over the hull or a compartment
  • Bridge - a room or platform at the top of a vessel’s superstructure that operates as the command center
  • Alleyway - a passage in a vessel

In addition to these, there are numerous other phrases that are used to make communication simpler. For example:

  • Say again - please repeat yourself - this is especially used over the radio
  • I require assistance - a request for help that is easier to understand than a panicked or rushed plea
  • Sécurité, sécurité, sécurité - a French phrase which is used before some useful safety information is relayed
  • Pan, pan, pan - used before a serious request for help
  • Mayday, mayday, mayday - used before the most severe and urgent request for help such as if the vessel is in danger of sinking
lifebuoy and glowing red SOS sign

To find out the meaning of more maritime-specific words, take a look at a maritime glossary that will contain hundreds of words and phrases.

Message markers in Maritime English

Message markers are used in the shipping industry to make sure that orders and instructions are clear. They are added to the front of a spoken phrase so that the person or people being spoken to are under no confusion as to what is about to be said. For example:

  • Warning - often used by someone on the shore to a vessel to let them know that something is occurring and the vessel needs to take action or exercise caution
  • Intention - the speaker is about communicate an decision they are about to take
  • Advice - used before offering a vessel’s Master and/or officers a suggestion
  • Question - a question or query is about to be asked
  • Answer - a reply to a question
  • Request - used in front of a request for assistance or information

Some examples of message markers being used in Maritime English are:

  • “Request: Dispatch pilot now.”
  • “Question: What is the ETA of your vessel?”
  • “Warning: Proceed with caution. Capsized vessel ahead.”
drone shot of a capsized vessel

How to become qualified in Maritime English

While  anyone wanting to work in a seafarers job may not specifically need to hold a qualification in Maritime English, being able to communicate effectively is mandatory under the IMO STCW Convention, ISM Code and SOLAS as well as other international standards. Depending on the seafarer rank, a certain level of English will be required to meet that rank’s competencies.  

Obtaining a certification in Maritime English, therefore, will help anyone applying for jobs at sea set themselves up for success. Proficiency in English is a real selling point on a seafarer resume and something that employers look for when hiring crew members for their seafarer job vacancies.

There are any number of Maritime English tests out there. We won’t recommend any specifically but a quick Google will give you plenty to choose from. You can take a test with a private company or a government agency, if offered in your country.

Scrabble tiles spelling out the words school, learn, read

What is Maritime English: Conclusion

Maritime English, Seaspeak or SMCP (Standard Marine Communication Phrases) are a way of ensuring that seafarers and those working in shore-based maritime jobs are able to clearly communicate with each other, no matter what their native tongue is.

When you consider that a study found that 50% of the most common causes of accidents at sea were the result of some type of miscommunication - including the incorrect use of Maritime English - it makes it all the more important to understand and speak SMCP correctly if you want to succeed, and succeed safely, in your maritime career.