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Memory cues there and here keep mariners safe if danger’s near

Feb 28, 2018 12:26 PM

Named after the ancient Greek goddess of memory, a mnemonic is used to help someone recall information. Mnemonics are well known and employed by teachers, psychologists and  myriad other professionals — including mariners. According to experts, there are nine types of mnemonics, each utilizing techniques such as word cues, elaborate encoding or even sound and imagery. Children “singing” their ABCs, for example, are using a music mnemonic — the ditty helping them memorize and recite the full alphabet. A different form, a name or acronym mnemonic, takes the first letter of words to be remembered and forms a new word, which is then used as a memory aid. The word HOMES is a name or acronym mnemonic that helps people remember the five Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior. As kids, many of us utilized the “Thirty days hath September, April, June and November” ode mnemonic to learn how many days were in each month of the year.

With the vast amount of information mariners have to know to do their jobs, it’s no wonder that the nautical life lends itself well to the use of mnemonics. Grey, a classmate of mine at California Maritime Academy, was a wizard when it came to everything related to navigation and underway operations, having been a boatswain’s mate in the U.S. Navy prior to attending CMA. One evening, we were studying together in preparation for a Rules of the Road test the following day. He showed me a quiz card that had a red light over a green one, and asked me what it was. I drew a blank. Seeing that I was having a hard time, Grey said, “Think Rule 25.” Still not sure, he grew impatient with me and exclaimed, “How about the mnemonic ‘Red over green, sailboat seen?’” That rhyme triggered my memory and I blurted out, “Yes! In accordance with Rule 25, a sailboat underway can optionally exhibit two all-around lights, a red one over a green one at or near the top of the mast, in addition to its required sidelights and a stern light.”

Experts say that although we all learn information through a combination of visual, auditory and kinesthetic or tactile means, each of us has a preference. Some people prefer seeing what to do; others would rather hear the instructions, with the third group preferring to learn by doing. Interestingly, although different types of mnemonics work better depending on whether people are partial to visual, auditory or kinesthetic learning, the memory aids can work very well for all three groups.

I have always been tuned into auditory learning, and consequently have had trouble with the flashing-light test required for each of my unlimited license upgrades. Once, after completing the written portion of my chief mate’s test with high marks, I still had to get through the flashing-light exam before my new license could be issued. At that time you could still test at the local Regional Exam Center (REC), but after giving it a try it was obvious that I was nowhere near ready. So, on the way home I went to Captain’s Nautical Supplies in Seattle and bought a practice flashing-light test kit, complete with a cassette tape that controlled the flashes, a mini flashing light and pages of tests. After setting myself up at the kitchen table and practicing for two days, there had been some progress but not nearly enough, and I began to worry about getting up to speed.

That’s when I decided to try something different, memorizing all of the letters’ and numbers’ dits and dots by putting them to music, using Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” for the cadence. The music mnemonic I had created worked almost immediately for me, making it easier to remember the flashing-light code for all of the letters and numbers. In fact, it wasn’t long before my scores had improved enough that I was ready to test. Watching the flashing-light machine in the exam room of the REC down at Pier 39, Connie, the evaluator supervising my test, was probably wondering what I was doing tapping my feet animatedly during the flashing-light exam, but I passed on the first try and was then issued my brand new chief mate’s license.

Nautical mnemonics are useful for test preparation but also have been devised for practical use at sea. For example, weather rhymes such as “Red sky at night, sailors’ delight; red sky at morning, sailors take warning,” and “A ring around the sun or moon means rain or snow is coming soon” have a solid basis in fact, and for generations have prompted mariners to remember the importance of certain meteorological observations. My dad sailed as an able seaman and boatswain for many years, and it was he who first told me the navigational mnemonic “Red right returning,” used to remind mariners on which side to leave the red buoys when coming from sea into a U.S. port. Engineers also use mnemonics. I remember Joe, one of my roommates at CMA, reciting the “Twinkle twinkle little star, E is equal to I times R” mnemonic to help him remember Ohm’s law before an electricity test he had. To find out more, I suggest going to, which has great info on maritime weather mnemonics, and to, which has a fun visual depicting various Rules of the Road mnemonics.

Nautical mnemonics were developed over generations so that mariners could quickly access vital information. Their real purpose, however, is to help us avoid accidents, recognize the importance of certain weather changes, react appropriately in an emergency and ultimately save lives. So, whether it’s the dark of night in a busy waterway and the lights of a vessel that didn’t come up on radar suddenly appear, or there’s a fire on board that threatens the safety of the ship and requires the crew to go in and fight it, these mariner “tools of the trade” can spark our memory at a time when a delay or oversight could mean the difference between life and death. That alone, in my opinion, is reason enough not to ignore their value.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney

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