‘It’s Thursday.’ ‘Me, too; let’s get a drink’

Guest perspective/Lauren E. Storck

In the U.S. alone, there are 50 million of us with some hearing loss or deafness. That’s one in five people of all ages, on average. If you are so challenged, these three thoughts are important: 1. No shame is warranted or allowed; 2. Be aware of hearing loss and talk about it; and 3. Find the resources and equipment you need to stay safe and enjoy boating. My suggestions in this article may pose more questions than answers, but I will provide information sources to answer most of the queries it evokes.

You know how they say to “stay ahead of the pain,” using prescriptions as needed after surgery? Let’s stay ahead of hearing loss hurdles by using resources needed for communications. Communications: That’s the key word when on the water. And take note: Hearing loss is sometimes accompanied by tinnitus, balance concerns and dizziness.

Boating was never a huge part of my life. My husband’s family was always in or on the water; mine was always enjoying the view. He took me out on Long Island Sound in his sailboat years ago, and a sailor I did not become. I’m the mate who most enjoys color planning for the cushions down below. My captain could not be more understanding of that, and patient with my hearing loss. Lucky me.

About 11 years ago, we started early retirement, enjoying our special place on Maine’s North Haven Island. We traded our sailboat for a 28-foot powerboat, which allowed me finally to enjoy the water. What’s more beautiful than Penobscot Bay when you can still see? I used hearing aids, and did not worry too much about hearing anything. Readying for our next stage of life, we started planning for the captain’s life dream: living aboard and taking a boat down the ICW. We began realizing this dream last fall.
I now have a cochlear implant (hearing aids did not help any longer), and I hear well enough using that ear in quiet situations. How much of boating life is that? Well, in fact, much of boating is relaxing and enjoyable without too much conversation needed. The sounds of the wind, the sea, the motors, and even some sails and noisy guests present challenges.

There are wireless communication systems (mics and headphones) made for larger boats – if you are still able to use systems to magnify sound. Many of us can no longer do that, unaided by additional devices such as hearing aids, cochlear implants, looping systems, and listening gadgets that any good audiologist can explain to you. And my own special passion: captioning. I know I’ve introduced many new terms and concepts, so I suggest you find a copy of my short paperback, “You Don’t Have to be Deaf to Love Captioning: Family, Hearing Loss, and Me” (available from Amazon) or visit our non-profit’s web pages (http://ccacaptioning.org) for explanations.

Wireless headsets are described at www.boatingmag.com/gear/comparisons-sake-wireless-headsets. How about onboard hand signals? These can be found at www.kluznick.com/hand-gigs.html.
My hearing loss is neurosensory and genetic, inherited from my father. It is one of the more confusing experiences in one’s life – not love, not finances, not neighbors. Among the millions of us, 98 percent don’t use sign language; lip-reading gives us 30 percent of the message. We’re able – not dumb and deficient: Our ears have changed, so be it.

Most of us hear voices and sounds, but speech comprehension becomes difficult: It’s mostly a blur and noise. Sometimes we hear low frequencies (fog horns), yet high frequencies (whistles and birds) may disappear. Good hearing aids help many. Anyone can have trouble hearing in noisy situations.
Why is there so much stigma still? Babies are born with hearing loss. Teens develop hearing loss; it’s not an old-age thing. There’s no cure, so protect your ears. Here are suggestions for everyone boating these days:

1. Have your hearing tested. You are worth it to yourself, your family and crew. A good audiologist will test your baseline, and if there’s no hearing loss you can rejoice. If there is loss, you’ll be aware.

2. If hearing aids are suggested, please spend the money. You would buy radar if you sailed in the fog frequently. Try them, give them time, don’t give up. Go back and have them adjusted so that they become more useful. The time you take to do this on land will enrich your boating life.

3. If hearing aids no longer help enough, consider a cochlear implant. Ridiculously, costly implants are covered by Medicare and insurance, while hearing aids are not.

4. Looping is a newer technology, a wireless system to bring sound directly into your ear (with a hearing aid). Installing looping on a boat (below at least) may be helpful. We’re told an America’s Cup boat used looping at one time.

5. Tell everyone on board you have a hearing loss, that some small extra efforts from everyone are required: Tap you on the shoulder, gently, for your attention; face you to speak whenever possible; and respect your contributions to the adventure.

6. During a quiet time, explain to fellow crewmembers the history and nature of your hearing loss.

7. Paper and pencil are more basic technologies to use. Or try the dictation system on your mobile phone. Each voice is different and for some, in some unhurried situations, a cellphone is a communication tool.

Join us in advocating for more “speech to text” – live captioning – on boats, especially for emergency communications. This is a cutting-edge need that will develop in coming years, especially if more of us advocate. The blurry SOS voice from a neighboring boat becomes clearer if we read “H – E – L – P” on a handheld monitor.

For someone with hearing loss to use the VHF in any emergency, a card with all details is needed plus rehearsal to issue a mayday or pan-pan call. With hearing loss, we won’t understand what the Coast Guard says, so a distress call might be: “Mayday (three times), this is (boat name three times), and I’m deaf (three times) – and I cannot hear you. Then transmit all the usual location information. You will be surprised how many keep talking to you anyway. Repeat above.

Are we having fun yet with hearing loss and boating? Yes! Our journey down the ICW began in September 2016. Keep in touch by text (emails, websites, captioned phones) and whatever works for you and me.

Author Lauren E. Storck enjoys the waters from Maine to the Bahamas, and she looks forward to visiting the West Coast by boat one day – with deafness. She is founder and president of the non-profit ccacaptioning.org, which offers information about hearing loss and captioning. Just FYI: Two of Points East’s regular contributors have cochlear implants, and they have many sea miles in their wakes.