Originally published in the Dec 1991 ‘Bay Currents’ — (Vol 6, No 12).
You are trying to catch up, but you can’t. Your arms flail as fast as they can, yet your friends cruise too fast. The guy leading the pack is 200 metres away, and the nearest paddler is 60 metres away. What do you do? Blow the whistle!
That’s right, you blow the whistle attached to your PFD and wave your arm. The paddler 60 metres away stops and looks back at you. You put your fist up in the air like John Carlos at the Olympics. The paddler stops and pats her hand on top of her head and faces her palm up, signalling ‘Are you okay?’ You give her the ‘thumbs up’ signal, point to the other paddlers, then repeat the fist in the air. This means ‘Everybody stop!’
She blows her whistle and other paddlers look back at her. She repeats ‘Everyone stop!’ until everyone stops. You then paddle up to her and signal to everyone ‘Gather around me!’ As the other boaters approach, you signal ‘Raft up’. Everyone rafts up and you say, ‘I can’t keep up. I’m tired and I need to rest.’ Everyone agrees and your hide is saved — thanks to hand signals.
When sea kayaking, we need to communicate accurately, reliably, and quickly. Our comfort, and even our lives depend on it. Someday (perhaps soon), we will communicate at sea with inexpensive, waterproof transmitters in our helmets. Until then, hand signals must suffice. Let’s look at the grammar and lexicon of hand signals that may be useful while kayaking at sea.
Several US kayaking groups use hand signals while touring, exploring, and playing. We keep within shouting distance of other team members to facilitate communication. Our friends, the Banzai Bozos, convinced us to adapt the divers’ ‘buddy system’ while adventuring, so someone is always nearby in close communication in case something goes awry.
But even buddies can’t always talk at conversation volume due to wind and wave noise, compounded by distance. So, borrowing hand signals from river kayakers, SCUBA divers, military commandos, crane operators, and regular folks who use common nonverbal emblems, we have put together necessary words that our team uses at sea. We share these signals with you in hope that a standard signal set will evolve so kayakers anywhere can readily communicate.
To save time and avoid confusion, a common grammar must be used. For simplicity, we structure sentences in a rudimentary manner. That is, we use only simple sentences (no complex or compound sentences — though multiple nouns and verbs are used); we signal only in the active voice (subject/predicate/object) so no auxiliary verbs are needed; we use only nouns, verbs, and adjectives -prepositions, adverbs and other words are implied; to reduce the number of signals, we use subject pronouns in subjective and objective case (similar to pigeon English). So, a typical hand signal sentence might state: ‘YOU COME I.’ This is a command meaning ‘Get your arse over here.’
Most signals indicate commands. Some indicate personal action, others describe something or someone, while other signals ask questions. ‘YOU COME I’ is a command. ‘I TAKE PICTURES’ is personal action. ‘IT’S SCARY’ describes and ‘WHAT?’ is a question.
Signals can be broken down into nouns, verbs (predicates), adjectives (descriptors) and a few miscellaneous words. Some signals have multiple meanings which become obvious in context. There is a breakdown of common signals used by the Tsunami Rangers at sea in the table available on the next page. These comprise the bulk of signals that we use most often. Occasionally we add new ones or drop ones that have no use. We are open to learning new signals that have value or are simply clearer than extant signals.
Signals should be used when normal conversation is not possible. All signals use only one hand. If you need to talk, HAIL, signal the group to FORM UP — and then speak normally. If you do not desire complex conversation, first HAIL with hand and whistle or vocal signal (we yell HOYT!!), and then, after you gain attention, give your signals. Remember to always give signals in active voice (subject/verb/object). Use nonverbal inflection to indicate urgency (eg, horizontally revolve your forearm real fast, as if winding a string on a spool, to indicate GO! GO! GO!).
When to Use ‘What?’
Use WHAT at the end of a sentence (or by itself) to indicate a question, a request, or that you do not understand. Here’s an example of a question: A person exits a cave and paddles toward you. You point to the cave and raise your palm up (IT WHAT?). You are asking ‘What happened in the cave?’
In this example, if the paddler did not understand your question, he would signal WHAT? And, if you pointed to the cave, put your palm down above your brow and signalled WHAT?, you would be requesting ‘IT SCOUT WHAT?’ This means, ‘Do you wish to scout out that cave?’
The paddler might then respond by shaking his head from side to side, holding his palm up like a tiger claw, and zipping his index finger across his throat: ‘NO! IT’S HAIRY! LET’S QUIT.’
You might then salute your comrade, point to the horizon, point to him, do a seig heil, and then raise your palm up. You just signalled, ‘WILL COMPLY. THE HORIZON, YOU LEAD. WHAT (Ya Wanna)?’
If your companion gives you the thumbs up, points to you, and then sweeps at his ass, he is saying: ‘RIGHT ON! YOU SWEEP.’ And everyone lives happily ever after.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The above example illustrates a sample scenario at sea. I could give more, but why, er, I mean WHAT? Everyone speaks a little differently to communicate the same thing. As long as everyone understands every time, there is no problem. Still, it’s a good idea to practice the signals at home and in the car on the way to the put-in.
If you are unsure as to the best way to signal, remember the three C’s of communication: Clarity, Conciseness, and Correctness. So, make sure you are clearly understood. State your message concisely (simply, yet completely). And make sure you state it correctly, so receivers understand what you mean. At sea, communication confusion can be very costly.
Finally, practice signalling with your group of friends while at sea. This way, communication will be easier and safer. If you practice all the time, it will become second nature and not require conscious thought. Compared to sign language for the deaf, this signal system is easy. So do yourself a favour and learn to communicate at sea.
|I/ME||Point index finger toward self||Yourself|
|IT/THEM||Point index finger toward object||Object, activity, place, people|
|YOU Person/s||Point index finger toward person||Person/s|
|WE/US||Circle index finger at group||All of us|
|COME||Beckon with index finger||Come here|
|CUT||Bring index finger across throat||Let’s quit|
|FORM UP||Circle index finger above head||Gather around|
|GET CLOSE||Put thumb close to index finger||Get in close|
|GO||Horizontally revolve arm as if winding a spool||Go forward/backward|
|GROK||Put bunched up fingers on temple||Pay attention|
|HANG||Hang fingers limply near ear||Wait around, hang out|
|IGNORE||Throw air over shoulders||Ignore my last signal|
|LAND||Slam palm face down||Go to shore and land|
|LEAD||Give seig heil||Lead the group|
|RAFT||Click side of fist on paddle||Raft up|
|RELAX||Slowly ease palm face down||Relax, don’t be uptight|
|SCOUT||Put palm over brow||Check it out|
|SPREAD||Open hand wide near head||Spread out|
|STAY AWAY||Move hand far away from body||Stay far away (from danger)|
|STOP||Put fist in air||Stop, hold position|
|SURF||Move hand in snake motion with palm down||Surf, play in waves|
|SWEEP||Make whisking motion with hand near arse||Follow the group and sweep|
|WAIT||Hold index finger up near ear||Wait a moment|
|BAD||Thumb down||No good, bad move or idea|
|BORING||Pat yawning mouth with palm||Boring, uninteresting|
|DANGEROUS||Arm or paddle horizontal over head||Not safe, don’t go|
|GOOD||Thumb up||Good, good move or idea|
|HAIRY||Make tiger claw near head||Very wild and scary|
|OK||Pat head with palm Physically||OK, not hurt|
|SAFE||Arm or paddle vertical over head||Safe to go|
|SURFCHICKEN||Hold fist against shoulder and flap elbow rapidly||Afraid|
|UNSURE||Rotate down palm from side to side||Not sure, can’t decide|
|BYE||A wave goodbye||Goodbye, end transmission|
|GOT IT||Form a circle with thumb and index finger||OK, I understand|
|GREETING||Give Vulcan greeting||Live long and prosper|
|HAIL||Lightly wave arm over head||Hail, listen up|
|HELP||Strongly wave arm over head||Help, assistance needed|
|NO||Shake head from side to side||No, I disagree|
|WHAT||Place hand near shoulder, palm up||Who/what/where/when/how?|
|WILL COMPLY||Salute||I understand and will comply|
|YES||Nod head up and down||Yes, I agree|