When my Dad first started working for the RNLI, back in the early eighties, one of his responsibilities was training his lifeboat crews in the art of VHF communication. And one his favourite toys was the so-called ‘mobile classroom’. Today, this might mean some kind of virtual environment that you can bink up on your laptop. But back then, it meant something very different.
Because the mobile classroom was exactly that. It was a very long Land Rover towing an even longer boxy trailer. And in the trailer was a fully kitted out VHF training suite, complete with radios, desks and everything else that students would need. His crews loved it. My sisters and I loved it. Our neighbours, and anyone else who might have wanted to park on our street, did not.
Possibly because of his years in the merchant navy, my Dad was a stickler for order and precision. So the clear and concise nature of VHF communications was right up his street. And it soon rubbed off on my siblings and me, too. In fact, it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I realised that not everyone has the phonetic alphabet as their second language.
My Dad also taught us that clarity and brevity doesn’t have to mean blunt and discourteous. Years later, when he, my father-in-law, my brother-in-law and I were sailing into some port or other on the Belgian coast (I forget which, though it was possibly Zeebrugge), we were wondering how to negotiate our way through the commercial traffic to the yacht harbour.
Ever the pragmatist, Dad reached for the VHF handset and raised port control.
“Good evening, sir. We are a nine metre sailing yacht heading for the yacht harbour. May we have your permission to pass through the port, please? Over.”
No doubt stunned at being on the receiving end of such British politeness from a rather scruffy German-flagged vessel, the port controller could barely contain his enthusiasm.
“Good evening to you, too, sir. A very warm welcome to Zeebrugge (or wherever we were). You are clear to pass through the port. And please have a most excellent stay.”
I feel more than a little regret that I didn’t get my Dad to pass on to me more of his nautical skills. My splicing, for example, still leaves rather a lot to be desired. And I’m more than a little ropey when it comes to using a sextant. But the ability to communicate clearly, calmly and concisely, taught to me by my Dad all those years ago, is something that I will cherish forever.