When the Russian pilot of an Aeroflot jet is approaching Moscow's airport staffed by Russian Air Traffic controllers, convention still holds that everybody is speaking English. Even if that English isnt great, there is still enough to know that the basics can be covered. This is necessary because there isn't a lot of time to react, negotiate language, etc. and, since aviation really "took off" first in English speaking countries, the precedent eventually became standardized and the safety and efficiency benefits were realized.

Going back to my "private sailboat enters a foreign harbor" thing, can I expect the same treatment in a boat? I'm thinking that it would be really easy to ask for customs if I could assume that the Harbor master or some other official could be counted on to speak English. Otherwise, it would be wise to bring along a dictionary.

So, is there an international language of the sea that can be counted on.

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    According to anecdotes I've heard from a friend who's into sailing, nope; you can't really count on harbour officials knowing English in all parts of the world.
    – Jonik
    Dec 13, 2012 at 21:06
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    ICAO rules require that all pilots and air traffic controllers know English. However, an air traffic controller and pilot may communicate with each other in another language (if both of them are willing to do so). E.g. listen to this ATC recording from SVO: archive-server.liveatc.net/uuee/… .
    – R-traveler
    Dec 14, 2012 at 7:05
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    – SztupY
    Aug 18, 2014 at 11:23

3 Answers 3


You can't really count on Harbor Masters knowing English although International Maritime Organization mandates at the very least a basic proficiency in English and knowledge of Standard Marine Navigational Vocabulary for all people responsible for communicating to ships at sea or ports.

In addition to this I have found Standard Marine Communication Phrases and MarTEL, which seem to suggest that at least some proficiency in the English language is required for all crews operating at sea.


As stated by Karlson, there are some mandates about basic proficiency in English, but the reality can be something quite different.

Some years ago I was sailing from Sicily to Croatia and visited several harbours on the southern shore of Italy. I didn't find many places where officials would understand a word of English (or Finnish, my native tongue ;-) ), but had to manage with my rusty Italian.


There have been various attempts to introduce ‘simplified marine English’ (the commonest is Seaspeak), but the reality is that you don't need to pass any exams, in language or anything else, to become a fisherman, lifeboatman, or (in some places) harbourmaster. English is more widely understood at sea than in the world in general, for a variety of reasons; but it would be unwise to enter a foreign harbour without a phrasebook, at least. (Or, of course, you could resort to speaking English loudly and slowly, putting -o on the end of half the words; let me know how it works.)

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