The inanely profane or tediously irritating chatter heard over your VHF radio sometimes makes you just want to switch the damn thing off, but maintaining a constant radio watch is one of the most basic safety tenets when underway. Not only will you remain advised of the types and intentions of the vessels you may soon encounter—(and in so doing glean valuable information that may well save you time and trouble) but you’ll know what and who’s around to help you if need be. You’ll likewise become a ‘Good Sam’ first responder should your close proximity to a vessel in distress enable you to provide assistance more quickly than others further away can deliver.
If you’re squalking “10-4” or “What’s your 20?” when speaking on your VHF radio you’re already way off base. Those expressions are for CB talkers and have no proper place in VHF communication. Broken down on the side of the road in need of help or getting caught in a highway speed trap are inconveniences, but they pale in comparison to the many dangerous situations which quickly evolve on the water, so there’s a good reason for the precise language prescribed for use over the VHF airwaves.
Authorities took a lesson from the military and long ago recognized the need to establish and codify some clearly audible and uniform means of VHF communication. Situations evolve so quickly and under such stressful circumstances, often exacerbated by weak or garbled transmissions and background noise, that it’s critical a message can be clearly heard and understood in the first transmission… since there may not be a chance for a second try. Battles and sinking’s can be noisy. Some of the proper VHF language may seem arcane or even silly, but when you understand the roots and derivations of the words it all starts making perfect sense.
MAYDAY: This universal word is used to indicate an emergency situation requiring immediate life-saving assistance… the word we all cringe at hearing and hope we never have to utter into a microphone. If you’ve ever heard a Mayday call, it gives you goose bumps, both due to its urgent meaning as you begin picturing the disaster unfolding and the commonly panicked tone of the person in distress.
“Mayday” is simply the Anglicization of the latter part of the French phrase venez m’aider which means “come help me.”
FIVE-BY-FIVE: This expression comes from the Q-signals used in radio teletype communications of old. Specifically, QRK (‘What is the readability of my signal’) and QSA (‘What is the strength of my signal’) were both rated on a scale of one to five. Hence, “five-by-five” signifies a strong readability and signal strength.
ROGER: The codeword “R” (which would later become ‘Roger’) began in the 1940’s and 50’s and was part of the ‘Able’, ‘Baker’, ‘Charlie’ codes. ‘R’meant ‘Yes, Ok…I understand you’. Morse code operators used the letter R (dit-dah-dit) as a way to acknowledge a message and indicated “OK”, or understood. When voice communications became, possible “Roger” took the place of R. Pilots began using “Roger” as code for ‘Your message received and understood’.
ROGER-WILCO: I’ve even heard licensed radio operators say this is a movie inspired terminology. Wrong. As detailed above,”Roger” means ‘your message received and understood. Add the “Wilco” and it simply means “Received, Understood. Will Comply.”
This would be used in cases where not only information but instructions are sent.
PAN-PAN: Pronounced “Pahn-Pahn,” it comes from the French word ‘Panne’’ which conveys a breakdown or mechanical failure. “Pan-Pan” indicates urgency, but the difference between ‘Pan-Pan’ and ‘Mayday’ is that Mayday declares grave or imminent danger to the ship/aircraft that can result in death, while ‘Pan-Pan’ is used in situations where ships/aircrafts require non-life-threatening assistance or help, i.e. a boat out of gas or in need of repair.
COORDINATED UNIVERSAL TIME: Why not Greenwich Mean Time (GMT)? Coordinated Universal Time or UTC, became the internationally accepted time because it is more accurate than GMT. Greenwich Mean Time is an older version of standard time zones for the world since it is based on solar time and the rotation of the earth which is not constant. UTC is based on the standard second obtained from the Caesium-133 element in atomic clocks. In the beginning, UTC was steered or reset to match GMT and local times. In January 1972 it was fixed and time steps or leap seconds were introduced to keep local times near mean solar time.
STAND BY ONE: This phrase follows along with ‘Five-by-Five’ and old telegraphy in that is uses a Z-code, ZUJ, meaning ‘Stand by’. Just add a one, it becomes ZUJ1, or ‘Stand by one.”. It basically means ‘wait while I find out what you need".
Another common misnomer, heard mostly in movies, is the expression “Over and Out.” This is incorrect. Transmitting “Over” means you have passed transmission to the other party and are awaiting a response. “Out” means you have concluded transmitting and expect no response. You can’t pass transmission AND be done transmitting, only one or the other.
Lastly, for the sake of absolute clarity, it sometimes becomes necessary to actually spell words out phonetically since “B” can sound just like “D” through the static, and some people just wing it (“I say again, A-B-C… asparagus, bologna, chipmunk…”). The use of randomly selected words is not correct and the international maritime community has designated certain specific words for the phonetic alphabet. They are Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliet, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee and Zulu.
Roger that all? Out.
(The author wishes to gratefully acknowledge the efforts, expertise and contributions of LT. Robert Taylor and Petty Officer Benjamin Stumbo, United States Coast Guard, in the preparation of this article.)