Fore Deck to Aft Deck: Communications on a Small but Noisy Vessel

It’s loud at the back of the boat. Our motor is only 25 hp, but 25 over 8 hours adds up. I’ve taken to wearing my shop ear protection while driving to fend off the headaches that come from exposure to long-term white noise. The ear protection, along with my explorer hat and ninja face mask, plus my wrap-around shades and a red umbrella locked to the top of the cabin, protects me from the sun but not from the stares of sun-drenched boaters who pass us. I cover almost as much of my body as they leave bare in their Bermuda shorts and bikinis.

Between the ear protection, the humming motor, and the added obstacle of a twelve-foot-long cabin topped with a hydroponics garden, I can barely ever hear anything Morgan says on the fore deck from my position on the aft deck. Not only are we on different ends of the boat, but we’re also at different elevations; Morgan is stationed on the deck and I’m perched above cabin height to steer from the cabin roof. Standing with feet on the deck, neither of us is tall enough to look straight over the cabin, so Morgan has taken to climbing up on the forward combing to pop her head up and yell back at me over the cabin top. Sometimes she comes all the way back through the boat, suddenly appearing at knee-height to tell me something. I’ll be lost in thought, or scanning the horizon, or partially transfixed by the humming of the motor, or happily singing to myself, and I’ll discover with a start that Morgan is standing beside me, at the base of my ladder on the deck.

Eventually we decided that we needed a better way to communicate than yelling at each other, especially for situations when the wind picks up, so we made up a system of hand signs. Our sign for “nun” is predictable, something like the YMCA song dance move for the letter “A”. Our sign for “can” is basically the same thing but slightly more rounded. We have symbols for barges, barge sizes, barge speeds, our own speed, swampy areas ahead, “what is that”, and “wingdam over there”.

At first our sign for “pleasure boat” (ie a non-commercial vessel) was double middle fingers up and crossed, because we were sure that there was a special place in hell for pleasure boats who didn’t reduce their wakes when passing by an obviously less sturdy craft, but we eventually realized some cruisers just didn’t know that we couldn’t take their full wake, so Morgan’s middle fingers got less proud, shrinking back a bit every time she made the sign. Eventually we amended the sign. Now it’s just two fists crossed.

People send signs our way too. We get lots of Satanic signs and lots of thumbs up. When we’re wearing full face and ear gear, people don’t initially wave at us. They wait for some sign of friendliness from us first, so we wave and then they respond with a burst of excited gesturing, a flurry of palms and arms.

When I need to ask Morgan a question (which way does the channel break at this island? is that barge actually moving? is that a dock over there? what’s that mile marker?) I knock on the cabin roof, and her head promptly pops up opposite me across the rooftop. Sometimes I put my coffee cup down on the cabin too loudly and her head pops up in response to the false alarm. Sometimes just the very crown of the back of her head pops up and down up and down with inexplicable regularity and I realize she’s doing squats on the front deck. When Morgan looks back from her spot at the fore deck, all the way through the openings in both the fore and aft cabin walls, she can see my feet on the ladder, sometimes partially suspended in a yoga stretch or tapping impatiently like I’m dancing off beat to the shanties I’m singing.

We continue this way all day, in our own little spaces only catching glimpses of one another until we anchor or dock. When we near civilization and reduce speed I take off my gear and we talk to one another like regular people again.

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