Marine Radio Information for Boaters

Marine Radio Information for Boaters

We had a lot of response when we asked the question; “what courses would you like to see?” One suggestion was a course on radio procedure. While we have future plans for a course on radio licensing, we felt that some frequently asked questions about radios might be in order. Much of the information presented here is courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard and the FCC.

You have the option of selecting one of the questions below to go directly to that information or simply start with “Who needs a radio?” and scroll through the entire article.

  • Who needs a radio?
  • Do I need a radio license?
  • Do I need a permit to operate a radio?
  • If I have a radio do I have to listen to all that noise?
  • There are so many channels, how do I know which to use?
  • Okay, so I have a radio, how do I use it?
  • What About in an Emergency situation like Mayday! Mayday! Mayday?
  • What do you do if you hear a distress call?
  • What do you do if you are out of range of other vessels and no one responds to your distress call?
  • How do you know if there are Storm Warnings?
  • What about radio checks, how do I know my radio is working?
  • What about MAYDAY Radio Checks and other Hoaxes?
  • Updates

Who needs a radio?

Although recreational vessels less than 20m (65.6 feet) in length are not required to have VHF radios, before you purchase anything else, make sure you have a VHF marine radio. If you plan to travel more than a few miles offshore, you should strongly consider purchasing an HF or single side band radiotelephone or mobile satellite telephone, an emergency position indicating radio beacon, or EPIRB, and a second VHF radio or cellular telephone as well.

Mobile satellite telephones are becoming more common and more inexpensive. The mobile satellite will provide easier and clearer communications than the HF radiotelephone, but the HF radiotelephone will receive high seas marine weather warnings. Your radio is part of your life insurance policy that we talked about last week when we addressed EPIRB’s .

Do I need a radio license?

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 permits recreational boaters to have and use a VHF marine radio, EPIRB, and marine radar without having an FCC ship station license. Boaters traveling on international voyages, having an HF single sideband radiotelephone or marine satellite terminal, or required to carry a marine radio under any other regulation must still carry an FCC ship station license.

Those not exempted by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 must still have an FCC ship station license. A ship station license application is made on FCC Form 605, available from local FCC Field Offices, by writing to the FCC, P.O. Box 1050, Gettysburg PA 17326, or by calling the FCC Forms Distribution Center at (202)418-3676 or the toll-free number (800) 418-FORM. Forms can also be obtained from most marine electronics dealers.

Radios can be used immediately upon license application. The license is not transferable if a boat is sold or if the installed radio equipment is moved from one boat to another.

If you wish to purchase a portable radio for use on more than one boat, only one license is necessary. When completing an FCC Application for Ship Station License (form 506), check “Portable” in block 10, “Type of License”.

Do I need a permit to operate a radio?

The FCC Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit is required for boaters having an HF radiotelephone, for boaters having a VHF transceiver and traveling in foreign waters, or where fitting of a marine radio is required by law (e.g. on boats 20m long or larger). There is a fee for this lifetime permit, but no tests are required in applying for this license. An application is made on FCC Form 753, available from local FCC Field Offices or by writing to the FCC, P.O. Box 1050, Gettysburg PA 17326.

If I have a radio do I have to listen to all that noise?

Even though you may not be required to carry a VHF radio, if you do (and you should) you must maintain a watch on channel 16 (156.800 MHz) whenever the radio is operating and not being used to communicate. You may alternatively maintain a watch on VHF channel 9 (156.450 MHz), the boater calling channel. Note however that urgent marine information broadcasts, such as storm warnings, are announced on channel 9 only in First CG District waters (northern New Jersey, New York and New England).

Recently a charter boat whose radio was not tuned to the proper channel missed a severe storm warning. By the time the captain learned of the storm, it was too late to return to shore. The ship sank and a couple of persons died. A yacht in trouble off the west coast of Mexico, and far from help, saw a passenger ship. What should have been a quick rescue almost turned to disaster when the passenger ship (improperly) had its radio off. The yacht was able to attract the ship’s attention, however, and was rescued. Misunderstanding of passing intentions by approaching vessels and near collisions have repeatedly been averted by working radios tuned to the proper channel.

The International Telecommunications Union established three VHF marine radio channels recognized worldwide for safety purposes:

  • Channel 16 (156.800 MHz) – Distress, safety and calling
  • Channel 13 (156.650 MHz) – Intership navigation (bridge-to-bridge)
  • Channel 70 (156.525 MHz) – Digital Selective Calling

There are so many channels, how do I know which to use?

Let me start by talking about the major channels that recreational boaters should be familiar with. The Federal Communications Commission has established VHF-FM channel 9 as a supplementary calling channel for noncommercial vessels (recreational boaters). A ship or shore unit wishing to call a boater would do so on channel 9, and anyone (boaters included) wishing to call a commercial ship or shore activity would continue to do so on channel 16. Recreational boaters may continue to call the Coast Guard and any commercial facility on channel 16.

The purpose of the FCC regulation is to relieve congestion on VHF channel 16, the distress, safety and calling frequency. FCC regulations require boaters having VHF radios to maintain a watch on either VHF channel 9 or channel 16, whenever the radio is turned on and not communicating with another station.

Warning: The Coast Guard announces urgent marine information broadcasts and storm warnings on channel 9 in the First Coast Guard District only (waters off the coast of northern New Jersey, New York, and New England). For that reason, we strongly urge boaters to use channel 9 in these waters. Use of channel 9 in other waters is optional, and we recommend boaters keep tuned to and use channel 16 in those waters unless otherwise notified by the Coast Guard.

Channels 9 and 16 are used for “hailing” (calling another vessel) only. Once you have contacted a vessel you should move your conversation to a “working channel”. That is, one designated as “non-commercial” such as channel 68.

Another channel you should be aware of is channel 22A. This channel is reserved for the U.S. Coast Guard to relay marine information broadcasts. You may on occasion hear on channel 16 an announcement by the USCG telling all boaters that they have information that may be of importance to you. They would request that anyone wanting to listen to the information switch to channel 22A to hear the information.

If you would like to view or print out the available channels, transmitting and receiving frequencies and description and use of the channel just go to the channel listing .

Okay, so I have a radio, how do I use it?

The standard procedure for a non-emergency call such as calling another vessel, marina, or restaurant to ask where to tie up for dinner, is as follows.

  1. You should call the vessel, marina or restaurant on channel 9 or 16 in the following manner.
  2. Name of station being called, spoken three times.
  3. The words “THIS IS”, spoken once.
  4. Name of your vessel and call sign (if you have a station license) or boat registration number, spoken once.
  5. The word “OVER”.
  6. Then you wait for the station being called to answer. Their answer should be in the same manner as your call.
  7. Once answered you should suggest going to a working channel to carry on your conversation.
  8. The word “OVER”.
  9. Wait for reply or confirmation from the station being called, switch to the working channel and repeat the process.

An example might be:

Calling Station: “Sailfish Marina, Sailfish Marina, Sailfish Marina, THIS IS the motor vessel Magical Lady, WAI4093, OVER” (WAI should be spoken Whiskey, Alpha, India, fow er, zero, nin er, tree) If you think this sounds cool and very official you can view and or print out the phonetic alphabet here .

Responding Station: “Magical Lady, Magical Lady, Magical Lady, THIS IS Sailfish Marina, WBC5678, OVER” (WBC should be spoken Whiskey, Bravo, Charlie, fife, six, seven, ait)

Calling Station: “Please switch and listen channel 68, OVER.”

Responding Station: “Switching channel 68, OVER.”

You would then switch to channel 68 and call Sailfish Marina using the same procedure and conduct your business. All conversations whether on a hailing channel or a working channel should be kept short and to the point.

What About in an Emergency situation like Mayday! Mayday! Mayday?

You may only have seconds to send a distress call. Here’s what you do. Transmit, in this order:

  1. If you have an HF radiotelephone tuned to 2182 kHz, send the radiotelephone alarm signal if one is available. If you have a VHF marine radio, tune it to channel 16. Unless you know you are outside VHF range of shore and ships, call on channel 16 first.
  2. Distress signal “MAYDAY”, spoken three times.
  3. The words “THIS IS”, spoken once.
  4. Name of vessel in distress (spoken three times) and call sign or boat registration number, spoken once.
  5. Repeat “MAYDAY” and name of vessel, spoken once.
  6. Give position of vessel by latitude or longitude or by bearing (true or magnetic, state which) and distance to a well-know landmark such as a navigational aid or small island, or in any terms which will assist a responding station in locating the vessel in distress. Include any information on vessel movement such as course, speed and destination.
  7. Nature of distress (sinking, fire etc.).
  8. Kind of assistance desired.
  9. Number of persons onboard.
  10. Any other information which might facilitate rescue, such as length or tonnage of vessel, number of persons needing medical attention, color hull, cabin, masks, etc.
  11. The word “OVER”

Stay by the radio if possible. Even after the message has been received, the Coast Guard can find you more quickly if you can transmit a signal on which a rescue boat or aircraft can home in.

An example of a Mayday call:


Repeat at intervals until an answer is received.

What do you do if you hear a distress call?

If you hear a distress message from a vessel and it is not answered, then you must answer. If you are reasonably sure that the distressed vessel is not in your vicinity, you should wait a short time for others to acknowledge.

What do you do if you are out of range of other vessels, and no one responds to your distress call?

Tune your HF radiotelephone to an HF channel guarded by the Coast Guard, and repeat your mayday call. Activate your EPIRB.

How do I know if there are Storm Warnings?

The Coast Guard announces storm warnings and other urgent marine information broadcasts on VHF channel 16 and 2182 kHz before making the broadcasts on VHF channel 22A and 2670 kHz respectively. The Coast Guard announces urgent marine information broadcasts and storm warnings on channel 9 in the First Coast Guard District only (waters off the coast of northern New Jersey, New York, and New England).

What about radio checks, how do I know my radio is working?

The Coast Guard First District (New England, south to northern New Jersey) is now answering radio checks on VHF maritime channel 16, operations permitting. Radio checks will not be answered when CG radio operators are handling distress communications.

The purpose of this policy change is to help reduce hoax MAYDAY calls. Radio checks with the Coast Guard are not permitted in any other location.

You should limit your radio checks to working channels.

What about MAYDAY Radio Checks and other Hoaxes?

A growing number of boaters unsuccessful in getting a radio check on VHF channel 16 are calling MAYDAY to get a response. Every hoax, including MAYDAY radio checks, is subject to prosecution as a Class D felony under Title 14, Section 85 of the U.S. Code, liable for a $5000 fine plus all costs the Coast Guard incurs as a result of the individual’s action. Since hoaxes can lead to loss of life, the Coast Guard and Federal Communications Commission will work closely together, using, when necessary, FCC equipment capable of identifying the electronic signature of the offending radio.

Updates : Within the past few years channel 9 was also designated to be used as a hailing frequency in addition to channel 16 (which is both hailing and distress). However, in the First Coast Guard District only (waters off the coast of northern New Jersey, New York, and New England), the Coast Guard announces urgent marine information broadcasts and storm warnings on channel 9.

As of July 1, 2000, the Ninth Coast Guard District (Great Lakes Region) mandated that US recreational boaters use channel 9 only as a hailing frequency and they are not to hail on channel 16. This is due to the increase in radio traffic on channel 16. Emergencies, however, are still reported on channel 16.

Boat Safe this Spring or Fall – Avoid Hypothermia

Boat Safe this Spring or Fall – Avoid Hypothermia

Even when the weather is warm, do not forget that in many areas the water can be very, very cold. A sudden unexpected wake or other “unbalancing event” can land you in the frigid water. Although the possibility of drowning from falling into the water is a real threat, so too is hypothermia.

Hypothermia is a condition that exists when the bodyÂ’s temperature drops below ninety-five degrees. This can be caused by exposure to water or air. The loss of body heat results in loss of dexterity, loss of consciousness, and eventually loss of life. A few minutes in cold water makes it very difficult to swim, even to keep yourself afloat. In addition, a sudden, unexpected entry into cold water may cause a reflexive “gasp” allowing water to enter the lungs. Drowning can be almost instantaneous.

Your body can cool down 25 times faster in cold water than in air . If you examine the chart below you will see that survival time can be as short as 15 minutes. Water temperature, body size, amount of body fat, and movement in the water all play a part in cold water survival. Small people cool faster than large people and children cool faster than adults.

PFDs can help you stay alive longer in cold water . You can float without using energy and they cover part of your body thereby providing some protection from the cold water. When boating in cold water you should consider using a flotation coat or deck-suit style PFD. They cover more of your body and provide even more protection.

Hypothermia does not only occur in extremely cold water . It can, and does, occur even in the warmer waters of Florida and the Bahamas.

Hypothermia Chart

If the Water
Temp. (F) is:

Exhaustion or

Expected Time
of Survival is:


Under 15 min.

Under 15 – 45 min.

32.5 – 40

15 – 30 min.

30 – 90 min

40 – 50

30 – 60 min.

1 – 3 hours

50 – 60

1 – 2 hours

1 – 6 hours

60 – 70

2 – 7 hours

2 – 40 hours

70 – 80

3 – 12 hours

3 – Indefinite

Over 80



Hypothermia is progressive – the body passes through several stages before an individual lapses into an unconscious state. The extent of a personÂ’s hypothermia can be determined from the following:

1. Mild Hypothermia – the person feels cold, has violent shivering and slurred speech.

2. Medium Hypothermia – the person has a certain loss of muscle control, drowsiness, incoherence, stupor and exhaustion.

3. Severe Hypothermia – the person collapses and is unconscious and shows signs of respiratory distress and/or cardiac arrest probably leading to death.

Conservation of heat is the foremost objective for a person in the water . To accomplish this, limit body movement. Don’t swim unless you can reach a nearby boat or floating object. Swimming lowers your body temperature and even good swimmers can drown in cold water.

If you can pull yourself partially out of the water – do so. The more of your body that is out of the water (on top of an over-turned boat or anything that floats), the less heat you will lose. Especially keep your head out of the water if at all possible – this will lessen heat loss and increase survival time.

Wearing a PFD in the water is a key to survival . A PFD allows you float with a minimum of energy expended and allows you to assume the h eat e scape l essening p osition – H. E. L. P .

This position, commonly referred to as the fetal position, permits you to float effortlessly and protect those areas most susceptible to heat loss including the armpits, sides of the chest, groin, and the back of the knees. If you find yourself in the water with others, you should huddle as a group to help lessen heat loss.

Treatment of hypothermia can be accomplished by gradually raising the body temperature back to normal . Re-establishing body temperature can be as simple as sharing a sleeping bag or blanket with another individual, or applying warm moist towels to the individualÂ’s neck, sides of chest and groin. Remove wet clothes as they inhibit heat retention. A warm bath could be used for mild to medium hypothermia, gradually increasing the temperature. Keep arms and legs out of the water and do not attempt to raise the body temperature too quickly.

Do not massage the victimÂ’s arms and legs . Massage will cause the circulatory system to take cold blood from the surface into the bodyÂ’s core, resulting in further temperature drop. Do not give alcohol , which causes loss of body heat, or coffee and tea which are stimulants (and cause vasodilation) and may have the same effect as massage.

Boating Tips and Articles

Boating Tips and Articles


  • Steps to Smooth Anchoring
  • Anchoring Tips – by Bill Wallace

Boat Operation & Handling

  • Tilt? Trim? What Those Trim Tabs Do
  • Tilt & Trim for Outboards and I/Os
  • Boat Docking – An Introduction by Charles Low
  • Docking Broadside to Wind by Charles T. Low
  • Station Keeping by Charles Low
  • Boat Docking Around an Obstacle by Charles Low
  • Boat Docking in a Quartering Wind by Charles Low
  • Close Quarters Maneuvering by Charles Low
  • Docking Stern-to – by Charles T. Low
  • Boat Docking – Alongside in a Headwind by Charles T. Low
  • Maneuvering in a Narrow Channel
  • Docking & Undocking
  • Docking Tips continued
  • Operating Around Barges and Towboats
  • View from the Bridge aka The Rule of Tonnage
  • What to do if you’re suddenly in charge of the boat: Small Outboard Basics and Larger Inboard & I/O Basics
  • Navigating Inlets By CWO Jim Krzenski, Commanding Officer, USCG Station Fort Pierce, FL
  • Navigating Bridges
  • How Locks Work
  • Low-head dams by Virgil Chambers, Executive Director, National Safe Boating Council
  • Heavy Weather Boat Handling
  • Passenger/crew orientation by Janice McArthur
  • Boating Etiquette
  • Dockside Do’s & Don’ts
  • Fueling Your Boat Safely
  • Facts About Fuel
  • Operating your Boat in Reduced Visibility
  • Your Boat’s Aground – Now What?
  • Estimating Time of Arrival
  • Calculating the Distance to Horizon
  • Taking Bearings on a Small Boat by Bill McNiel
  • Lightning Protection
  • Understanding the Danger of Propeller Strike
  • Operating Your Boat in accordance with Homeland Security Measures

Boating Checklists & Logs – Printable

  • A Float Plan
  • Float Plan for Trailer Boaters from Ed Schorr
  • Trip Log
  • Ship’s Log
  • Pre-departure Check List
  • New Pre-departure check list – in PDF format for printing – contains additional items for inland boaters.
  • Tools & Spare Parts List
  • Required Equipment for Recreational Boats
  • Chartering? Be prepared with our Charter Check List

Marine Communications

  • Marine Communications – Cell Phone vs VHF Radio vspacer.gif (821 bytes)
  • Marine Radio Procedures
  • When You Radio for Help on the Water By Chief Warrant Officer Jim Krzenski Commanding Officer, U.S.C.G. Station Fort Pierce, FL
  • Getting Help on the Water
  • International Code Flags

Boating Environment & Sanitation

  • Clean Boating – Do Your Part (or get fined!)
  • Environmentally Safe Cleaning Products for your Boat
  • Maritime Environmental Regulations by Chief Warrant Officer Jim Krzenski, Commanding Officer, U.S.C.G. Station Fort Pierce, FL

Equipment for Your Boat

  • Navigation Lights – Is your new (or not so new) boat legal?
  • Required Equipment for Recreational Boats


  • An Overview of GPS

Staying Healthy on Your Boat

  • Seasickness contributed by Bob Pone
  • Drug-Testing and Maritime Law by Capt. Alan E. Spears.
  • Sea Doc Tips: Sunscreen & Sunburn
  • Removing a stray fishing hook By Bob Pone, the Marine Do-it-Yourselfer


  • Hypothermia
  • Beware!! The Hazards of Ice By Gerald M. Dworkin, Lifesaving Resources, Inc.
  • How to Use an Icesuit – by Gerald Dworkin, Lifesaving Resources, Inc.

Life Jackets – PFDs

  • USCG Approved Inflatable Lifejackets – A Review
  • Test Your Lifejackets
  • What kind of PFD do I need?
  • How to Read PFD labels
  • Care and maintenance of PFDs

Boat Maintenance

  • Spring Boating Safety Checklist
  • Can You Be Seen? – Check Your Navigation Lights
  • Basic Electrical Theory for Boaters
  • More on Electricity for Boaters
  • Prolong the Life of Your Marine Batteries
  • Marine Engine Cooling Systems Explained
  • Marine Engine Life Expectancy
  • Troubleshooting the Over-Heating Engine
  • Outboard Motor Maintenance
  • Electrolysis and Your Props
  • How to Winterize your Boat
  • Environmentally Safe Cleaning Products for your Boat
  • Get Your Boat Ready for the Season – Spring Boating Check List
  • Off-Season Project: Repair & Prevent Blisters
  • Changing Oil – made easy
  • Bright Ideas by Bob Pone, The Marine Do-It-Yourselfer
  • Winterizing Your Boat
  • Checking Bilge Pumps
  • Through-hull Fittings


  • Marlinespike
  • How to tie some useful knots for boaters

Misc. Boating Articles

  • Ceremony for Renaming Your Boat
  • Paddling our National Parks – Part 1
  • Paddling our National Parks – Part 2
  • Anatomy of a Wave by Jay Holben
  • Boat Insurance – What You Need to Know
  • What Does SOS Stand For?
  • What do Mark Twain & Your Depth Sounder Have in Common?
  • Ship’s Bells & Watch Schedules
  • What to do if you think you’ve caught a world record fish!
  • Nautical Mnemonics
  • What does it mean to “Dress Ship” and how do you do it?
  • Windsurfing Don’t Get in Over Your Head by Lawrence Pearlman

Nautical Book Reviews

Navigation, Nav Rules, Rules of the Road

  • GPIRB – The smart EPIRB
  • Navigation Lights – Is your new (or not so new) boat legal?
  • Changes to the Nav Rules
  • Aids to Navigation Update
  • Can You Be Seen? – Check Your Navigation Lights
  • Safe Navigation Information By CWO Jim Krzenski, Commanding Officer, USCG Station Fort Pierce, FL
  • Rules of the Road By CWO Jim Krzenski, Commanding Officer, USCG Station Fort Pierce
  • View from the Bridge aka The Rule of Tonnage
  • Identifying Aids to Navigation
  • Regulatory Markers
  • Aids to Navigation
  • Sound Signals in Restricted Visibility
  • Sound Signal Questions
  • Lights and Dayshapes
  • Dayshapes – what they mean
  • Estimating Time of Arrival
  • What Rule of the Road did the Captain of the Titanic Break?
  • Nautical Mnemonics
  • All About Nautical Charts
  • Nautical Chart Reading 101
  • NOAA’s Plans for Updated Nautical Charts
  • How to use Dividers and Parallel Rulers
  • Taking Bearings on a Small Boat by Bill McNiel
  • Nautical Miles and Statute Miles

The following online reviews are available:
(Requires Flash player to view)

  • Review Running Lights with this simulator
  • Review Rules of the Road
  • Review Aids to Navigation

Boat Ownership

  • Do you need a captain’s license? What is a ‘passenger for hire’?
  • Buying a Boat
  • Preventing Boat Theft
  • The Pros and Cons of Documenting Your Boat
  • Hull Identification Numbers – What they Mean

Boating Safety

  • Understanding the Danger of Propeller Strike
  • Can You Be Seen? – Check Your Navigation Lights
  • Navigation Lights – Is your new (or not so new) boat legal?
  • GPIRB – The smart EPIRB
  • Boat Accident Reporting – It’s the Law
  • When to Report a Boating Accident By CWO Jim Krzenski, Commanding Officer, USCG Station Fort Pierce, FL
  • Boating Under the Influence
  • Anatomy of a Boating Accident
  • EPIRBs – Safety at Sea by Chief Warrant Officer Jim Krzenski, Commanding Officer, U.S.C.G. Station Fort Pierce, FL
  • EPIRBs – Life Insurance at Sea
  • Float Plans Save Lives By Chief Warrant Officer Jim Krzenski, Commanding Officer, U.S.C.G. Station Fort Pierce, FL
  • Distress Signals by Chief Warrant Officer Jim Krzenski Commanding Officer, U.S.C.G. Station Fort Pierce, FL
  • Boater’s Judgment and Maturity By Chief Warrant Officer Jim Krzenski Commanding Officer, U.S.C.G. Station Fort Pierce, FL
  • Help Prevent Drowning with these Tips
  • Graphic Chart of Distress Signals
  • Crew Overboard by Jim Smith
  • Crew Overboard – quick question
  • Procedure for Abandoning Ship
  • Be Prepared with an Abandon Ship Bag by Doug Ritter
  • What to do if you’re suddenly in charge of the boat: Small Outboard Basics and Larger Inboard & I/O Basics
  • Safety Link Section Boating safety resources on the net
  • Preventing Fires Onboard By CWO Jim Krzenski, Commanding Officer, USCG Station Fort Pierce
  • Firefighting Basics for all boaters
  • PWC Tips – Fire OnBoard -by Scott Collier and the PWC Zone.
  • Marine Fire Extinguishers – An Update


  • Quick Sailing Tips & Techniques
  • How large a boat can you handle by yourself?
  • Are Single-Handed Sailors in Conflict with the Rules?
  • Sailing – Monohulls vs Multihulls
  • Rescue Techniques for Sail Racing – from the Rescue Chiefs of Cork

Boat Trailering

  • Safe Trailering by Jim Smith
  • Lighting Tips for Trailers by Jim Smith
  • Trailer Boaters – Is the Plug in?
  • Capt. Pat answers questions about trailering
  • Ramp Courtesy by Mark Fridl
  • Trailer Boaters: Ramp Safety – A True Story

Boat Towing

  • Towing Tips by W.J. Laudeman

Weather, Hurricane Prep,

  • Weather 101 – How to read clouds to predict approaching storms
  • Hurricane Protection for Boaters
  • Hurricane Tips for Liveaboards vspacer.gif (821 bytes)
  • Hurricane Preparation by Chief Warrant Officer Jim Krzenski, Commanding Officer, USCG Station Ft. Pierce, Florida
  • Hurricane Preparation Checklist for Boaters
  • Heavy Weather Preparations
  • Weather Proverbs Tried and true?

Boating Stories, Adventures & Humor

  • Salty Talk – Nautical Humor from Owen in Norway
  • Buying a Boat?  Here’s ” An Open Letter to my Creditors ”
  • Linda goes to The Fort Lauderdale Boatshow
  • The Great Bahamas Cruise by Jim Smith
  • Caution for Pontoon Boaters
  • Top 10 Silliest Questions Asked on Cruise Ships
  • Adventures in Galveston Bay by Jeanne Hurr
  • Capt. Matt’s Boating Adventure (In 4 parts)
  • Nathan’s Kite Boat
  • Port Tack to Tortola by Jim Smith
  • Murphy’s Law at Work by John Sullivan
  • Boating experiences on the ICW .
  • Keel-Hauling In Havasu by Jim Smith
  • Tortola Torture by Jim Smith
  • Vicki & Ray’s First Bareboating Adventure
  • The Bahamas via Hong Kong by Jim Smith
  • Some Humor from Jim Smith

BoatSafe Kids

  • Maps and charts are flat. Our planet is round. How’d they do that? The “Limejuice Sailor” tells us!
  • Play Life Jacket Tic-Tac-Toe
  • Did you ever catch a fish bigger than you are? Alex did!
  • What does ‘pounds of buoyancy’ mean when referring to life jackets?
  • Fire Extinguishers
  • How Fast Can a Boat Go ?
  • Person Overboard
  • A Visit to the Niña
  • Why are Boats Referred to as “She”?
  • What are the Top 5 Boating Safety Tips?
  • Where did the Word “Port” Originate?
  • Why is it So Hard to Back a Trailer ?
  • How Many People Can Fit in a Boat?
  • How Does a Sailboat Sail?
  • What is “Hydrodynamic effect? ”
  • How does the moon affect the tide?
  • Why do people act crazy in boats?
  • The History of Navigation
  • Cats and Dogs on Boats
  • How to be a Storm Spotter !
  • Why do cigarette boats have a closed bow?
  • How Far is the Horizon?
  • Do I have to wear my PFD?
  • How do life jackets work?
  • Stuff you should always have onboard no matter how small your boat is
  • Why are life jackets orange?
  • What does “abeam” mean?
  • What makes a boat plane?
  • How do heavy boats float?

PFD Basics

PFD Basics

How Many PFDs Do I Need?

You must have at least one, U.S. Coast Guard approved, wearable PFD for each person onboard, and it must be the appropriate size. If your boat is 16 feet or longer (generally excluding canoes and kayaks but check your state’s regulations) you must also have one throwable device (Type IV PFD).

What kind of PFD do I need?

PFDs are categorized by Type, i.e. Type I, II, III, IV or V. Types I, II and III are commonly worn by recreational boaters, while Type IVs are throwable devices such as life rings and buoyant cushions. Type Vs are for special uses, as will be discussed later.

pfd1.gif (4884 bytes)
Type I

pfd2.gif (4409 bytes)
Type II

pfd3.gif (10068 bytes)
Type III

pfd4.gif (5283 bytes)
Type IV

pfd5.gif (4960 bytes)
Type V

When considering a Type I, II or III – remember that, generally, the lower the number the better the performance. (A Type I is better than a Type II.)

Types I, II or III may be inherently buoyant, that is, they will float without action by the wearer, or they may be inflatable (oral and manual inflation at a minimum), or a combination of both (hybrid). Currently, all USCG approved inflatable PFDs are Type IIIs with manual inflation.

Select a PFD based upon your planned activities and the water conditions you expect to encounter.

Type I
Offshore Life Jacket
Type II
Near-shore Buoyant Vest
Type III
Flotation Aid
Best for open, rough or remote water, where rescue may be slow-coming. Good for calm or inland water, or where there is a good chance of fast rescue Good for conscious users in inland water and where there is good chance of fast rescue.
Advantages Floats you the bestTurns most unconscious wearers face-up in water

Highly visible color

Turns some unconscious wearers face-up in the waterLess bulky, more comfortable than Type I Generally the most comfortable type for continuous wearDesigned for general boating or the activity that is marked on the device

Available in many styles, including vests and flotation coats

Disadvantages Bulky Not for long hours in rough waterWill not turn some unconscious wearers face-up Wearer may have to tilt head back to avoid going face downNot for extended survival in rough water; a wearer’s face may often be covered by waves

All wearers need to try it in water prior to going boating

Inflatables: Inflatables: Some brands are now approved. Be sure to check for USCG approval. Type III Inflatables: Will keep many unconscious wearers face-up after inflation, but must be regularly inspected and re-armed to be reliable. Inflatables are not for non-swimmers, or for long hours in rough water. Inflatables are not for use where high speed impact is likely to occur.
Type IV
Throwable Device
Type V
Special Use Device
Advantages: Can be thrown to someone.Are good backup to wearable PFDs. More convenient or useful for specific activities.Continuous wear prevents being caught without protection. Most accidents happen suddenly and unexpectedly.
Disadvantages: Not for unconscious person, non-swimmers or children.Not for many hours in rough water. Less safe than other Types if not used according to label conditions.May be better suited to cool climates or seasons.

Some Type Vs are approved only when worn. If marked this way, they are required to be worn to be counted as a regulation PFD.

Notes: Kinds: Cushions, rings and horseshoe buoys. Hold to chest and put arms through opposite straps. Performance: Equal to either Type I, II or III performance as noted on the label.

What do Mark Twain and your depth sounder have in common?

What do Mark Twain and your depth sounder have in common?

A recent trip to Disney World in Florida and a subsequent ride on a paddle wheeler reminded me of something I had long forgotten. Thought some of you might be interested in how depth was measured in the “Ol days.” Actually, lead lines are in use today, although sparingly. I still carry one onboard, although it is a modern type. Capt. Matt

Mark Twain came into the world as Samuel Clemens on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri. His parents moved to Hannibal, Missouri while he was a young’un, and he spent his youth experiencing the adventures that shaped his life and colored his writings. At 24, he realized a boyhood dream when he was finally entrusted with the powers and duties of a steamboat pilot on April 9, paddlewheeler.jpg (3271 bytes) 1859 in St. Louis.

Twain loved the paddlewheel steamboat and he loved the river. As a matter of fact, it was during his years on the river that he chose his pen name. “Mark Twain” was a frequent call of the leadsman. It meant that the water was 2 fathoms (12 feet) deep and indicated safe water.

leadline.gif (2489 bytes) A leadline is used to determine water depth and the type of material which makes up the bottom or riverbed. A 30-foot-long line is attached  to a pipe filled with lead, except for the bottom 2 inches. (Modern leadlines are simply a solid round pipe-shaped piece of lead with a concave bottom) Material from the riverbed…mud, sand or potentially hazardous rock…collects in the lower, hollow end of the pipe.

The line itself, in the “Ol days”, was probably made of manila, hemp or sisal, and had markings woven into the strands which represented various depths. Today’s lead lines generally have polyester strands and bright colored plastic tags with actual numbers are woven into the strands

The leadsman is the person who “heaves the lead” and “sings the mark”. In the days of Mark Twain, the mark meanings were actually sung as the paddle boat cautiously made its way along the river in potentially shallow water.

Meaning of the Marks on the Leadline:

“Quarter Less” = minus 1-1/2 feet
“Quarter” = 1-1/2 feet
“Half”= 3 feet
“One” = 6 feet

“Mark One”

6 feet above the lead, one strip of leather is woven in.
“Quarter One”
7-1/2 feet above the lead, a white piece of cloth is woven in.
“Half One”
9 feet above the lead, a red piece of cloth is woven in.
“Quarter Less Twain”
10-1/2 feet above the lead, a black piece of cloth is woven in.
“Mark Twain” (safe water)
12 feet above the lead, two leather strips are woven in.
“Quarter Twain”
13-1/2 feet above the lead, a white piece of cloth is woven in.
“Half Twain”
15 feet above the lead, a red piece of cloth is woven in.
“Quarter Less Ta-Ree”
16-1/2 feet above the lead, a black piece of cloth is woven in.
“Mark Ta-Ree”
18 feet above the lead, 3 leather strips are woven in.
“Quarter Ta-Ree”
19-1/2 feet above the lead, a white piece of cloth is woven in.
“Half Ta-Ree”
21 feet above the lead, a red piece of cloth is woven in.
“Quarter Less Four”
22-1/2 feet above the lead, a black piece of cloth is woven in.
“Mark Four”
24 feet above the lead, one leather strip, with a hole in it is woven in.
“No Bottom”
Any depth over 24 feet.

Boating Tips

Boating Tips


Safety Tips
Safe Trailering by Jim Smith
Boater’s Judgment and Maturity
By Chief Warrant Officer Jim Krzenski
Commanding Officer, U.S.C.G. Station Fort Pierce, FL
Crew Overboard by Jim Smith
Crew Overboard – Quick Question
Required Equipment for Recreational Boats
Marine Radio Procedures
Choosing and Using the Correct PFD
Navigating Bridges
How Locks Work
How to tie useful knots (animated)
Passenger/crew orientation by Janice McArthur
When You Radio for Help on the Water
By Chief Warrant Officer Jim Krzenski
Commanding Officer, U.S.C.G. Station Fort Pierce, FL
Getting Help on the Water
Anchoring Tips – by Bill Wallace
Epirbs – Life Insurance at Sea
Lights and Dayshapes
Dayshapes – what they mean
Heavy Weather Preparations
Heavy Weather Boat Handling
Hurricane Preparation
By Chief Warrant Officer Jim Krzenski
Commanding Officer, U.S.C.G. Station Fort Pierce, FL
Hurricane Prep for your boat



Boat Handling Tips Boat Docking – An Introduction by Charles Low
Maneuvering in a Narrow Channel
Docking & Undocking
Docking Tips continued
Your Boat’s Aground – What Now?
Maintenance Tips Bright Ideas contributed by Bob Pone,
The Marine Do-It-Yourselfer
Troubleshooting the Over-Heating Engine
Winterizing Your Boat
Outboard Motor Maintenance
Checking Bilge Pumps
Through-hull Fittings
Useful Information Drug-Testing and Maritime Law
from Capt. Alan E. Spears.
Windsurfing Don’t Get in Over Your Head –
contributed by Lawrence Pearlman
Everything About Marine Sanitation
by Peggie Hall, President of Peal Products
Buying a Boat
Preventing Boat Theft
International Code Flags
Boating Accident Reporting – It’s the Law
An Overview of GPS
The Pros and Cons of Documenting Your Boat
Hull Identification Numbers – What they Mean
Calculating the Distance to Horizon
Lightning Protection
Boating Etiquette
Printable checklists
and logs
A Float Plan
Trip Log
Ship’s Log
Predeparture Check List
Tools & Spare Parts List


Understanding and Utilizing the Secrets of Waves

Understanding and Utilizing the Secrets of Waves


Any time you picture a body of water larger than a puddle, one of the first things that comes to mind are the rolling waves, or the surf lapping at the shore. Well, at least that’s what happens with me… But waves are much more than tranquil anomalies, they can be dangerous and destructive to any vessel in almost any body of water. Understanding how waves are made, how they normally behave, and how to predict their response to weather can make the difference between a smooth, comforting time on the water and a bumpy, frightening experience.

The first rule of waves, especially in the open ocean, is that there are no rules. Kind of a hypocritical statement considering the intent behind this article, but it is a hard, cold fact. There are simple physical factors that makeup the “normal” wave, but within the forces of nature, there a myriad of other factors that need be considered into the equation. Regardless, an understanding of what makes a “textbook” wave can be of considerable merit to the sailor. What we will examine here are the laboratory examples of wave creation. How, in a perfect world, waves would behave. In reality, alternating weather patterns, varying water depths, opposing currents, fetch obstruction and a multitude of other factors may change the way waves in a particular area react.


Keeping all of that in mind, we’ll throw out reality and concentrate on theory for a few minutes here. There are three factors that make up waves:

  • Wind speed Length of time the wind has blown
  • Distance of open water that the wind blows over; called fetch

All of these factors have to work together to create waves. The greater each of the variables in the equation, the greater the waves. Waves are measured by:

  • Height (from trough to crest) Length (from crest to crest) Steepness (angle between crest and trough)
  • Period (length of time between crests)

wave1.gif (4556 bytes)

There are theoretical limitations, however, for each variable. If there is a limited fetch, say 10 nm to land, and the wind is blowing at 36 knots, the waves will be 7′ high no matter how long the wind blows. Whereas for a 36 knot wind with an unlimited fetch blowing for 56 hours can create waves of 63′.



Speed (knots)

Fetch (nm)

Height (feet)

Length (feet)





































The table above demonstrates the relationship between wind speed and fetch.

Both in theory and in reality, waves are never created in one uniform height. Waves fall into a systemic pattern of varying size. Therefore, in order to classify wave height we determine the significant wave height, which is the average of the highest 1/3 of the waves in a system. This is how weather reports will specify wave height. Once you have the significant height, it is simple to determine the theoretical average height, the highest 10% and the highest wave sizes in a given area. Mathematically speaking, it’s simple arithmetic based on predetermined ratios:

Average height


Significant height


Highest 10%




To determine any one of the wave sizes, take the significant height and multiply it by the numerator in the applicable ratio. For example, if the significant height is 10′, the average height is 6.4′ (10 x .64), the highest 10% of the waves will be 12.9′ (10 x 1.29), and the highest waves will be 18.7′ (10 x 1.87 ).

We can also determine the speed or period of a wave mathematically by multiplying 1.34 times the square root of the wave’s length. [This number originates from many years of scientific research on wave speed.] Hence:

  • A 40′ wave travels at 8.48 knots ( 1.34 x sqrt of 40 [6.33])
  • A 50′ wave travels at 9.48 knots ( 1.34 x sqrt of 50 [7.07])
  • A 100′ wave travels at 13.4 knots ( 1.34 x sqrt of 100 [10])


Waves take their time to develop; they don’t spontaneously erupt from the ocean. It takes a certain speed of wind to blow over a certain distance for a considerable length of time to create lasting waves.

There are three different types of waves that develop over time:

  • Ripples
  • Seas
  • Swells

Ripples appear on smooth water when the wind is light, but if the wind dies, so do the ripples. Seas are created when the wind has blown for a while at a given velocity. They tend to last much longer, even after the wind has died. Swells are waves that have moved away from their area of origin and are unrelated to the local wind conditions — in other words, seas that have lasted long beyond the wind.

The definition of swells can be a bit confusing when you understand that waves never actually go anywhere . The water does not travel along with the waves, only along with the current — two mutually exclusive elements of water animation. If two people stand at either end of a long rope and undulate their arms up and down in an equal rhythm, waves will develop along the length of the rope that appear to move from one end to the other. The rope fibers aren’t actually moving at all, other than up and down. This is exactly what is happening with waves. The speed, or velocity of the wave is measured by how long it would take a wave to pass a given point crest to crest — say a line drawn on the ground beneath the rope. There is a slight movement of the water particles within a wave, but we’ll get into that in a little bit.Waves can be further described as:

  • Non-Breaking
  • Breaking

A non-breaking wave, is a “normal” rolling wave. A breaking wave is one who’s base can no longer support it’s top and it collapses. Depending on the size, this can happen with considerable force behind it — 5 to 10 tons per square yard. Enough force to crush the hull of a ship. When the ratio of steepness of a wave is too great, it must break. This happens when a wave runs into shallow water, or when two wave systems oppose and combine forces. The steepness ratio is expressed as the height to the length. A 1:24 is a long, shallow swell found in deep waters. A 1:14 and up is a wave that is too steep to stay together. This can also happen if the wind quickly grows strong and actually blows the top (crest) off the base of the wave. Wave characteristics also change in shallow water. Imagine if the rope that we talked about earlier was lowered to the ground so that the troughs of the waves hit the floor. This gives you some idea what happens when a wave hits shallow water, only the height and period won’t change, just the length and hence the steepness (as the length changes, so does the height to length ratio). Once the ratio gets high enough (like fractions, the closer together the numerator and denominator, the higher the fraction — 1:1 is the highest [that would be a wave at a right angle with the length exactly as long as the height.]) the wave will break.

Water Depth (feet)

Wave height (feet)

Wave length (feet)

Period (seconds)

150 +









15 (breaks)




15 (breaks)




Water particles within a wave have different patterns of movement based on whether it is a breaking wave or not. In a normal wave, there is an orbital movement of the water particles. This is best demonstrated by a cork floating in the water. As the wave rises, the cork spins in place (pushed by the orbital motion). This is a very passive movement, whereas the lined particle movement of a breaking wave is very aggressive — hence much more destructive.

cork2.gif (781 bytes) cork1.gif (839 bytes)

cork4.gif (863 bytes)


cork3.gif (920 bytes)

The images above demonstrate the orbital motion of a cork floating in the water as a wave passes from right to left. The cork’s position actually never changes other than a slight rotation.


The interrelationship between the wind and the waves is so important to skippers that a completely new classification system was designed as a guideline incorporating both wind speed and the wave conditions most readily found at those speeds. This system, called the Beaufort Scale , was developed in 1805 by Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort of the British Navy. It is a guideline for what can be expected in certain conditions and a weather classification system. It assumes open ocean conditions with unlimited fetch.


Wind Speed


Sea Conditions





Smooth, like a mirror.



1 – 3 knots

Light Air

Small ripples, like fish scales.

1/4′ – 1/2′


4 – 6 knots

Light Breeze

Short, small pronounced wavelettes with no crests.

1/4′ – 1/2′


7 – 10 knots

Gentle Breeze

Large wavelettes with some crests.



11 – 16 knots

Moderate Breeze

Increasingly larger small waves, some white caps
and light foam.



17 – 21 knots

Fresh Breeze

Moderate lengthening waves, with many white caps
and some light spray.



22 – 27 knots

Strong Breeze

Large waves, extensive white caps with some spray.



28 – 33 knots

Near Gale

Heaps of waves, with some breakers whose foam
is blown downwind in streaks.



34 – 40 knots


Moderately high waves of increasing length and edges of crests
breaking into spindrift (heavy spray). Foam is blown downwind in well-marked streaks.



41 – 47 knots

Strong Gale

High wind with dense foam streaks and some crests rolling over.
Spray reduces visibility.



48 – 55 knots


Very high waves with long, overlapping crests.
The sea looks white, visibility is greatly reduced and
waves tumble with force.



56 – 63 knots

Violent Storm

Exceptionally high waves that may obscure medium size ships.
All wave edges are blown into froth and the sea is
covered with patches of foam.



64 – 71 knots


The air is filled with foam and spray, and the sea is
completely white.


Aside from just wind speed, the temperature is also a factor in creating waves. Warm air (which rises) moving over water has a less acute angle of attack on the surface than does cool air (which sinks). A cold front moving across open water will create much steeper waves and hence create breakers sooner than a warm front moving at the same speed.

Also, a change in wind direction over existing waves can create confusion and hence larger waves. If a wind has been blowing northeast over an open body of water for three days and suddenly switches to northwest over that same body of water, new wavelettes will form within the existing system of waves. The energy of both systems will multiply to create larger waves.

When a wave system meets a current flow one of two things can happen. If the wind and current are both going the same direction, it tends to smooth out the waves, creating long swells. If the current and wind are moving in contradicting directions, it will create much steeper and more aggressive waves.


So, what does all this mean? Why is it important to know how waves are made? Well… You can determine several things from waves.

One of the things you can tell based on waves, is boat speed. This assumes that your vessel is a displacement ship, like a keelboat, and not a planing one like a speedboat. When sailing a displacement vessel, the boat is constantly displacing a large chunk of water as it moves along. The heavier the boat, the deeper the trough it carves through the water. Now, along with the physics of waves we discussed above, we can add that the faster a wave travels, the longer it is. As a boat’s speed increases, the number of waves that it pulls along the hull decreases until the boat is actually trapped between the crest and trough of a single wave that it has created itself moving through the water.

onewav.gif (2582 bytes)

We know, from above, that the speed of a wave can be determined by the formula of 1.34 times the square root of the wave length. Since a displacement boat, traveling at top speed, is trapped in between the crest and trough of it’s own wave, we can also determine theoretical hull speed with this same formula using the boat’s L.W.L (Waterline length or length on waterline).

[It’s important to note here that L.W.L. is not the same as L.O.A. (Length overall) which is what most people use to describe a vessel. A 22′ Catalina (22′ being it’s L.O.A.) does not necessarily have a 22′ L.W.L.

A boat with a L.W.L. of 30′ has a theoretical hull speed of 7.34 knots. (1.34 x sqrt of 30 [5.48]) Now, very rarely will a boat ever reach her theoretical hull speed. This happens in the most perfect of conditions. However, since at that top speed the boat is trapped in a single wave, at lesser speeds, there will be more waves along the hull; proportionately so. If there are two waves on the windward side of the vessel then the boat is traveling at 1/2 theoretical hull speed. If there are three waves, then the boat is traveling at 1/3 that speed. You can fairly reliably judge your boat’s speed by counting the number of wave crests on the windward side between bow and stern and divide that number into your theoretical hull speed. Using this method, you can create a Dead Reckon plot without a speedometer.

onewav.gif (2582 bytes)
Theoretical hull speed (trapped in one wave)

twowav.gif (2091 bytes)

1/2 Hull Speed, two waves along the windward side

thrwav.gif (2160 bytes)

1/3 Hull speed, three waves along the windward side

You can also quickly spot shoals by watching the waves. A shallow area will create breakers in the middle of otherwise normal seas — this can help you further estimate your position by finding the shallow area on your chart and taking a bearing to that area.

Understanding the relationship between wind speed and fetch can also help you plan your trip and avoid uncomfortable situations. Limiting the fetch you sail in will limit the maximum size of waves that you encounter for a given wind speed, and thus further ensure that you don’t encounter a situation beyond your experience level.

Wind speed

Theoretical Max Wave Height

50 % Fetch

75% Fetch

100% Fetch

7 – 10 knots

2 feet

3 nm

13 nm

25 nm

17 – 21 knots

8 feet

10 nm

30 nm

60 nm

28 – 33 knots

20 feet

22 nm

75 nm

150 nm

41 – 47 knots

40 feet

55 nm

150 nm

280 nm

56 – 63 knots

63 feet

85 nm

200 nm

450 nm

By limiting the percentage of fetch (based on the theoretical max) you can considerably limit wave height that you will encounter. The theoretical max wave height above is based on an unlimited fetch and wind duration. By selecting a fetch in one of the three columns to the right of that max, you can adjust the theoretical max by that percentage. For example, in a 17-21 knot wind, with a 60 nm fetch and an unlimited wind duration, you can encounter 8 foot high waves. If you limit that fetch to 10 nm at the same wind velocity, you will encounter 4 foot high maximum waves. (50% of 8 feet).

You can determine wind direction by watching the ripples on the surface of the water (Swells may be running contradictory to current winds). Keep an eye out for shifting winds this way as the smaller waves are the greatest natural indicators at sea of wind direction. Also, using the Beaufort Scale, you can roughly determine wind speed based on the wave conditions — for instance, white caps generally form at around 12 knots of wind.


One last area to cover before we close this opus, and that is how to handle waves encountered at sea. Whether large rolling swells, or choppy breakers, the surface activity at sea can be one of a skipper’s most challenging obstacles. The following are some guidelines on how to deal with waves.

In order to avoid big waves:

  • Avoid shallow water. Not only does shallow water create breakers that move at more destructive and higher velocity than “normal” waves, but due to the sinusoidal movement of a wave, the actual nominal sea level is hard to determine. In reality, the nominal sea level is slightly below the center of trough and crest. In shallow water, you are more likely to run aground, even if the chart says you’re okay. Not to mention this can be a bumpy ride.
  • Don’t go upwind in big waves. This particularly applies to sailors who when tacking upwind will be crossing large waves at a relative angle of 45º to the bow. For sailors working upwind with escalating winds, plan to make your upwind progress before the winds build and sail downwind with the large waves later.
  • Use land as a natural breakwater. Sailing in the lee of an island will create smaller waves as the wind comes off land and then toward your vessel.
  • If the waves are so big that you can feel them pushing your boat sideways, or backward — turn into the wave. Try to hit the crest at a perpendicular angle and head off again just as the crest reaches the bow. This minimizes the surface area that the waves can push upon. Sailors be sure to keep steerageway by heading off once you’re on the crest.
  • You can estimate the height of waves by knowing your eye height above the water. If, when standing at the helm, your eye is 10′ above the surface of the water, waves just at the horizon line will also be 10′ in height.
  • When sailing in big seas, the true challenge is to pay attention. In reality you can never predict what a wave system will throw at you. Waves can suddenly come up from sideways, or a large threatening wave may pass quietly while a small one might break violently into your boat. Being alert and reactive is your best bet. Don’t concentrate on one area too much, but rather the whole picture.
  • Watch the weather reports. Not just for the day you are planing to sail, but the week before as well. Remember that a sudden shift in wind pattern contrary to what was happening for several days can create much larger waves in that area. You may be looking at a great fishing spot and NWS tells you that there are only 10 knot winds from the southwest there, however, what you don’t know is that the winds were blowing 10 knots from the northeast for the past five days — hence the significant wave height in that area is double what it should be for the conditions…

You can get real time wave reports over the internet from the National Weather Service.

Bouyrep.jpg (32547 bytes)

Above is an example buoy report from the internet. It clearly shows the date, time, sky conditions, weather description, temperature, wind direction, wind speed, speed of wind gusts, water temperature, significant wave height, wave period and visibility in miles.

Once you have a better understanding of wave systems, it can make your time on the water much more enjoyable. Being able to maintain a slight degree of control over what you will face while venturing out will help maintain your comfort level. Whether out for a short jaunt or a circumnavigation adventure, take care, keep a keen eye and enjoy.

International Code Flags or Signaling Flags

International Code Flags or Signaling Flags

Although you may never see them displayed except at fleet parades, around naval installations, and areas with heavy international shipping traffic, International code flags are used to signal between two ships or between ship and shore. Also called signaling flags, they are a set of flags of different colors, shapes and markings which used singly or in combination have different meanings. The flags include 26 square flags which depict the letters of the alphabet, ten numeral pendants, one answering pendant, and three substituters or repeaters.

Only a few colors can be readily distinguished at sea. These are: red, blue, yellow, black, and white; and these cannot be mixed indiscriminately. You will notice, for clarity, the flags shown are either red and white, yellow and blue, blue and white, or black and white; besides plain red, white, and blue.

One-flag signals are urgent or very common signals (see meanings below). Two-flag signals are mostly distress and maneuvering signals. Three-flag signals are for points of the compass, relative bearings, standard times, verbs, punctuation, also general code and decode signals. Four-flags are used for geographical signals, names of ships, bearings, etc. Five-flag signals are those relating to time and position. Six-flag signals are used when necessary to indicate north or south or east or west in latitude and longitude signals. Seven-flags are for longitude signals containing more than one hundred degrees.

Some Useful Two Letter Signals:

AC – I am abandoning my vessel. LO – I am not in my correct position: used by a light vessel. RU – Keep clear of me; I am maneuvering with difficulty.
AN – I need a doctor. NC – I am in distress and require immediate assistance. SO – You should stop your vessel instantly.
BR – I require a helicopter. PD – Your navigation lights are not visible. UM – the Harbour is closed to traffic.
CD – I require immediate assistance. PP – Keep well clear of me. UP – Permission to enter Harbour is urgently requested. I have an emergency.
DV – I am drifting. QD – I am going ahead. YU – I am going to communicate with your station by means of the International code of signals.
EF – SOS/MAYDAY has been canceled. QT – I am going astern. ZD1 – Please report me to the Coast Guard, New York
FA – Will you give me my position? QQ – I require health clearance. ZD2 – Please report me to Lloyds, London.
GW – Man overboard. Please take action to pick him up. QU – Anchoring is prohibited. ZL – Your signal has been received but not understood.
JL – You are running the risk of going aground. QX – I request permission to anchor.

Flag Courtesy:

U.S. National Ensign
& Merchant Flag

U.S. Yacht Ensign

It is usually appropriate to fly the U.S. National Ensign (flag) or U.S. Yacht Ensign at the stern of your vessel.

However, when operating internationally, say going to the Bahamas, once in foreign waters you are required to fly the “Q” Flag or “Quarantine Flag” until you have cleared customs. This flag should be hoisted on the starboard spreader. If you are on a power boat with no mast, the “Q” flag can be displayed on the bow.

It is also customary to fly the country’s courtesy flag when operating in the waters of that country. After clearing customs, the “Q” flag should be replaced with the country’s courtesy flag.

DonÂ’t fly a foreign courtesy ensign after you have returned to U.S. waters. It may show that you have “been there,” but it is not proper flag etiquette.

Customs regulations and clearance procedures and costs may differ from one foreign country to another. Be sure and check your cruising guide for the proper procedures or try inquiring locally by radio prior to entering a foreign port. Although I have found that most custom officials speak some English or have access to someone who does, donÂ’t forget that you are in their country and you should be prepared to communicate with them in their language.

So, now that you know all about signaling flags, get them out and wave them high.

What is the Meaning of SOS?

What is the Meaning of SOS?

Harmony asks “Do the letters in the term SOS represent three words? If so could you let me know what they are?” Thanks to Neal McEwen for allowing us to use information from his article “SOS”, “CQD” and the History of Maritime Distress Calls .

There is much mystery and misinformation wpe4.jpg (3194 bytes) surrounding the origin and use of maritime distress calls. Most of the general populace believes that “SOS” signifies “Save Our Ship.” Casual students of radio history are aware that the use of “SOS” was preceded by “CQD.” Why were these signals adopted? When were they used?

The practical use of wireless telegraphy was made possible by Guglielmo Marconi in the closing years of the 19th century. Until then, ships at sea out of visual range were very much isolated from shore and other ships. The wireless telegraphers used Morse Code to send messages. Morse Code is a way of “tapping” out letters using a series of dots (short signals) and dashes (long signals). Spoken, short signals are referred to as “dih” and long signals are referred to as “dah”. The letter “A” is represented by a dot followed by a dash:

dotdash.gif (293 bytes)

wpe5.jpg (21793 bytes) By 1904 there were many trans-Atlantic British ships equipped with wireless communications. The wireless operators came from the ranks of railroad and postal telegraphers. In England a general call on the landline wire was a “CQ.” “CQ” preceded time signals and special notices. “CQ” was generally adopted by telegraph and cable stations all over the world. By using “CQ,” each station receives a message from a single transmission and an economy of time and labor was realized. Naturally, “CQ,” went with the operators to sea and was likewise used for a general call. This sign for “all stations” was adopted soon after wireless came into being by both ships and shore stations.

In 1904, the Marconi company suggested the use of “CQD” for a distress signal. Although generally accepted to mean, “Come Quick Danger,” that is not the case. It is a general call, “CQ,” followed by “D,” meaning distress. A strict interpretation would be “All stations, Distress.”

At the second Berlin Radiotelegraphic Conference 1906, the subject of a danger signal was again addressed. Considerable discussion ensued and finally SOS was adopted. The thinking was that three dots, three dashes and three dots could not be misinterpreted.  It was to be sent together as one string.

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The Marconi Yearbook of Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony , 1918 states, “This signal [SOS] was adopted simply on account of its easy radiation and its unmistakable character. There is no special signification in the letter themselves, and it is entirely incorrect to put full stops between them [the letters].” All the popular interpretations of “SOS,” “Save Our Ship,” “Save Our Souls,” or “Send Out Succour” are simply not valid. Stations hearing this distress call were to immediately cease handling traffic until the emergency was over and were likewise bound to answer the distress signal.

Although the use of “SOS” was officially ratified in 1908, the use of “CQD” lingered for several more years, especially in British service where it originated. It is well documented in personal accounts of Harold Bride, second Radio Officer, and in the logs of the SS Carpathia, that the Titanic first used “CQD” to call for help. When Captain Smith gave the order to radio for help, first radio officer Jack Phillips sent “CQD” six times followed by the Titanic call letters, “MGY.” Later, at Brides suggestion, Phillips interspersed his calls with “SOS.” In SOS to the Rescue , 1935, author Baarslag notes, “Although adopted intentionally in 1908, it [SOS] had not completely displaced the older ‘CQD’ in the British operators’ affections.” (It is interesting to observe that Marconi was waiting in New York to return home to England on the Titanic.) The first recorded American use of “SOS” was in August of 1909. Wireless operator T. D. Haubner of the SS Arapahoe radioed for help when his ship lost its screw near Diamond Shoals, sometimes called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” The call was heard by the United Wireless station “HA” at Hatteras. A few months later, the SS Arapahoe received an “SOS” distress call from the SS Iroquois. Radio Officer Haubner therefore has the distinction of being involved in the first two incidents of the use of “SOS” in America, the first as the sender and the second as the receiver. The U.S. did not officially adopt “SOS” until 1912, being slow to adopt international wireless standards.

Everyday Phrases and their Nautical Origins

Everyday Phrases and their Nautical Origins


An admiral is a senior ranking officer in the US Navy, and the word signifies a commander of a fleet, or part of a fleet, in all maritime nations. From the Arabic word amir meaning prince or leader.

Not moored, at the will of the wind and tide. From the middle English drifte (to float). Sailors used the word to describe anything missing or come undone. From this word came drifter , a person without purpose or aim in life.

This traditional greeting for hailing other vessels was originally a Viking battle cry.

Aye, Aye
Aye is old English for “yes.”   The seaman’s reply “Aye aye, sir,” means, “I understand and I will obey.”

From the 17th century, it described the Spanish custom of hoisting false flags to deceive (bamboozle) enemies.




The word barge has two nautical meanings. First as a term applied to a flag officer’s boat or highly decorated vessel used for ceremonial occasions. The second usage refers to the more common, flat-bottomed work boat which is hard to maneuver and difficult to control. Hence the term . . . barge in .
Before the mast
The position of the crew whose living quarters on board were in the forecastle (the section of a ship forward of the foremast). The term is also used more generally to describe seamen as compared with officers, in phrases such as, “he sailed before the mast.” Most ships today have cabins for their crew.
Between the Devil and the Deep
The devil was the longest seam of the ship, thought to be the first plank on the outer hull of a wooden vessel from stem to stern. When at sea and the devil had to be caulked, the sailor hung from a rope to do so. He was suspended between the devil and the sea —  a very precarious position, especially when the ship was underway.

Bitter End
The end of the anchor line secured to a sturdy post on the deck called a  bitt. The line was paid out in order to set the anchor. However, if the water was deeper than anticipated the rope would pay out to the bitter end . . . ooops.

The first uniform that was ever officially sanctioned for sailors in the Royal Navy was a short blue jacket open in the front.  It is now used as a generic name for a Navy enlisted person.

Black Book
From the 1300’s – a collection of maritime laws and conduct that became known as the Black Book of the Admiralty. The punishments for offenses was harsh, to say the least. Drowning, starvation, and marooning were punishments for serious offenses such as repeatedly sleeping on watch. As used today, if you’re listed in someone’s black book, you have offended them in some way. Luckily for you, physical punishments no longer apply.

Blind Eye
In 1801, during the Battle of Copenhagen, Admiral Nelson deliberately held his telescope to his blind eye, in order not to see the flag signal from the commander to stop the bombardment. He won. Turning a blind eye means to ignore intentionally.

Blood Money
Originally known as bounty money, it was the financial reward for sinking an enemy ship. The amount of the reward, however, was not based on the size or importance of the ship but on the number of crew members killed.

From the Anglo-Saxon bat that meant a small ship or vessel.  A generic term for a small, open craft. Many people use the term when, in fact, they mean ship.



(pronounced bo’sun)
From the Saxon word swein which meant a boy or servant. It is his/her responsibility to assure that all equipment on deck, i.e. anchor, rigging, sails, etc., functions properly and have suitable spare parts. In spite of the name, the ship’s boats are not usually his responsibility.
Boatswain’s Pipe
An unusually shaped whistle, it was used in ancient Greece and Rome to keep the stroke of galley slaves. The pipe was used in the Crusades to call English cross bowmen on deck for attack.  A variety of tones can be produced, and each order had its own unique call. In time, the pipe came to be used as a badge of office by commanders. The pipe is still used, in the British and some other navies, for saluting visiting officers and other dignitaries.
Booby Hatch
A booby hatch is a small, covered compartment under the deck, toward the bow. Sailors were punished (perhaps by the Black Book) by confinement in the booby hatch. The term has come to mean (politically incorrectly) a mental institution, or to characterize some places I have worked.

Boot Camp
During the Spanish-American War, sailors wore leggings called boots, which came to mean a Navy (or Marine) recruit. These recruits trained in ‘boot’ camps.

Brightwork originally referred to polished metal objects and now is used to refer to varnished items made of wood, such as trim.

Brought Up Short
A sailing ship underway could only be brought to an emergency standstill by dropping the anchors. Not a pleasant experience. Used today to mean a person brought to an unexpected standstill by a sudden change of fortune or circumstance.

From the French boucan , or grill, for cooking dried meat. Originally referring to those who hunted and smoked meat, it expanded to include those who ate it (or stole it) as well. Predominantly in the Caribbean in the 1650’s, buccaneers differed from pirates in that they did not attack their own nation’s ships. Early groups were made up of adventurers of all kinds, excellent seamen all, many of whom made remarkable voyages around the world. Sir Henry Morgan organized them to capture Panama in 1671. The start of the European war in 1689 was the end of the buccaneers, though many went on to become “legit” privateers. Their romanticized legend lives on in the writings of Defoe, Masefield and Stevenson, and in Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Bees are Black . . .’ in which she refers to bees as “Buccaneers of buzz”.

A boat selling supplies or provisions to ships. Derived from the Dutch boomboat , a broad-beamed fishing boat. Or, possibly from bumbay , an old Suffolk word meaning quagmire. This word appeared in England in 1695 referring to scavenging boat regulations. These boats were employed to remove ‘filth’ from ships and also to carry fruits and vegetables for sale on board. (I didn’t make that up!)

By Guess and By God
An early form of navigation, relying upon experience, intuition and faith. Has come to mean inspired guesswork.

By the Boards
Beyond the wooden boards that make up the deck and ship’s planking. To throw over the side, or to pass by the side, of a vessel. To come aboard, on the other hand, means to come ‘on the boards (deck)’ of the vessel. (Still used today, though the wood is in short supply on most new boats.) By the boards has come to express a lost opportunity or to let something pass.

From the Latin carina (keel) or French carener . Prior to hydraulic lifts, hulls still needed to be cleaned, patched, caulked, etc. Careening is a deliberate heeling to one side in order to accomplish these tasks. Usually was done on a careenage, a steep, sandy shoreline.

Carry On
In the days of sail, the officer of the deck kept a weather eye constantly on the slightest change in the wind so sail could be reefed or added as necessary to ensure the fastest headway. Whenever a good breeze came along, the order to ‘carry on’ would be given. It meant to hoist every bit of canvas the yards could carry. Today, the term means to continue with your work.

A shipwrecked sailor. Not, as often used, a sailor marooned or put ashore as punishment. To cast away was to commit a deliberate act to cause a ship to sink, to be lost or to make it necessary to abandon her.



Cast Off

Letting go the lines to a mooring, wharf, dock, buoy or another ship in order to move away. Shore-side, the term refers to second-hand clothing.
From the Latin canal , referring to the movement of water, it is the area within a body of water of adequate depth to be used for navigation. As used by bureaucratic land-lubbers, ‘the proper channels’ do not necessarily assure a pleasant passage.
Chewing the Fat
Literally, eating the seaman’s daily ration of tough, salt-cured pork or beef. Long before refrigeration, cured meats were tough but durable and it took a lot of chewing to make them edible. Has come to mean a friendly conversation (or talking too much, depending who’s talking).

Clean Bill of Health
A certificate signed by a port authority attesting that no contagious disease existed in the port of departure and none of crew were infected with a disease at the time of sailing. Shore-side, it means in good shape.

Clean Slate
Prior to GPS and onboard computers, courses and distances were recorded on a slate. At the end of each watch these were transcribed into the ship’s log and the slate wiped clean for the next watch. Has come to mean starting anew.

Close Quarters
A small wooden fortress or barricade erected on the deck of a merchant ship when attacks by privateers were expected. Small openings, called loopholes, allowed the sailors to fire small weapons to protect the ship (and themselves, one would assume). Land-side, close quarters has come to mean in close contact or a small area. Loophole, from the French l ouvre (window), has come to mean a gap in the law.

Colors, True Colors, False Colors, Flying Colors
The flag flown by a vessel indicating its nationality was referred to as her colors. Long before radios, you can imagine how important this might have been, especially when engaged in battle. False colors were sometimes flown to avoid capture or to approach unsuspiciously (see bamboozle above). This was frowned upon in International Law, wherein it is accepted as a ‘ruse of war’ only if the ship is in immediate danger.

Coxswain (pronounced cocks’n)
A coxswain was the helmsman of a ship’s boat. Originally, small boats carried on ships were known as cockboats or ‘cocks’, from whence the term derived. With the passing of time the coxswain became the helmsman of any boat, regardless of size.

Possibly from the Dutch krengd , a crank was an unstable sailing vessel. Due to a faulty design, the imbalance of her cargo, or a lack of ballast, a crank would heel too far to the wind. Has come to mean irritable.

Crossing the Line
An ceremony performed onboard when passengers and/or crew cross the equator for the first time. A special initiation ceremony in which King Neptune and various other mythological characters participate. Owes its origin to ancient pagan rites.

Bluejackets (see above) treasure the certificate which testifies that “in Latitude 00-00 and Longitude xx-xx,” and usually addressed to all Mermaids, Sea Serpents, Whales, Sharks, Porpoises, Dolphins, Skates, Eels, Suckers, Lobsters, Crabs, Pollywogs and other living things of the sea,” __(name)__ has been found worthy to be numbered as one of our trust shellback, has been gathered to our fold and duly initiated into the solemn mysteries of the ancient order of the deep.”

Cup of Joe
Navy lore: Josephus Daniels (18 May 1862-15 January 1948) was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Among his reforms of the Navy were inaugurating the practice of making 100 Sailors from the Fleet eligible for entrance into the Naval Academy, the introduction of women into the service, and the abolishment of the officers’ wine mess. From that time on, the strongest drink aboard Navy ships could only be coffee and over the years, a cup of coffee became known as “a cup of Joe”.

Cut and Run
Most often thought to mean the cutting of an anchor line in an effort to make a quick getaway. Hard to imagine that many ship’s masters enjoyed routinely losing an anchor or two, so it is probably more likely referring to the practice of securing the sails of a square-rigged ship with rope yarns that could easily be cut away when a quick departure was necessary.

Cut of His Jib
The term originated in the 18th century, when sailing navies could determine the nationality of a sailing vessel by the shape of their jib, long before her colors could be seen. (A jib is a triangular sail in the front of the boat.) Shore-side meaning is to judge a person by outward appearance.

Dead Horse
A ceremony held by British crews when they had been at sea four weeks and had worked off their initial advance, usually one month’s wages (and usually long gone). The term ‘ flogging a dead horse ‘ alludes to the difficulty of getting any extra work from a crew during this period, since, to them, it felt as though they were working for nothing.

Deep Six
A fathom, the unit of measurement in most maritime countries for the depth of the sea, is six feet. Sailors used the term to refer to throwing something overboard and it has come to mean getting rid of something.

Deliver a Broadside
A broadside was the simultaneous firing of the guns and/or canons on one side of a war ship. Quite a blow, as can be imagined. Today it means much the same type of all-out attack, though done (usually) with words.

Devil to Pay
Originally, this expression described one of the unpleasant tasks aboard a wooden ship. The devil was the ship’s longest seam in the hull. Caulking was done with pay or pitch (a kind of tar). The task of ‘ paying the devil ‘ (caulking the longest seam) by squatting in the bilges was one of the worst and most difficult jobs onboard. The term has come to mean a difficult, seemingly impossible task. ‘The devil to pay and no hot pitch’. Landlubbers, having no seafaring knowledge, assumed it referred to satan and gave the term a moral interpretation.

Ditty Box or Ditty Bag
Possibly from the Saxon word dite , meaning tidy or from the English word dittis , a type of canvas material. A small box or bag in which a sailor kept his valuables such as letters, small souvenirs, and sewing supplies.

Doldrums, In the Doldrums
Between the tradewinds of the northern and southern hemisphere lies an area of calm winds, close to the equator, called the doldrums. Since sailing vessels relied upon the wind, a trip through the doldrums was often long, hot and boring.

Down the hatch
A toast that seems to have its origins in sea freight, where cargoes are lowered into the hatch. First used by seamen, it is thought to date from the 1930s and has been attributed to author P.G. Wodehouse.

Dutch Courage
Dates to the 1600s Anglo-Dutch wars and was likely British propaganda claiming that the Dutch troops were so cowardly they wouldn’t fight unless fortified with copious amounts of schnapps. The term has come to mean false courage induced by drink, or the drink itself.

Even Keel, Keeled Over
A vessel that floats upright without list is said to be on an even keel and this term has come to mean calm and steady. A keel is like the backbone of the vessel, the lowest and principal centerline structural member running fore and aft. Keeled over (upside down) was a sailor’s term for death.

Fall Foul Of, Foul Up
Foul is an often used nautical term generally meaning entangled or impeded. An anchor tangled in line or cable is said to be a foul anchor. A foul berth is caused by another vessel anchoring too close wherein the risk of collision exists. A foul bottom offers poor holding for anchors. A screw up!

A nautical measure equal to six feet, used to measure the depth of water at sea. The word was also used to describe taking the measure or “to fathom” something. Today when one is trying to figure something out, they are trying to fathom it or get to the bottom of it.

An ornamental figure placed on the front of a ship, under the bowsprit. Originally a religious and/or protective emblem. The custom continued but for purely decorative purposes. Hence the term figurehead – a leader with no real power or function except to ‘look good’ or appeal to a certain group.

Buccaneers (see above) were known in England as filibusters. From the Dutch for vrybuite r (freebooter) translated into French as flibustier . It is now used as a political term meaning to delay or obstruct the passage of legislation (as opposed to sailing vessels) by non-stop speech making.

Fits the Bill
A Bill of Lading was signed by the ship’s master acknowledging receipt of specified goods and the promise to deliver them to their destination in the same condition. Upon delivery, the goods were checked against the bill to see if all was in order. If so, they fit the bill .

Flake, Flake Out
In order to keep the anchor chain of a ship in good condition, the chain would be laid out up and down the deck (flaked) in order to locate and replace any worn or weak links. The term is still in use, as the captain will often instruct the crew to flake out the anchor line in preparation for anchoring. The anchor line is looped on deck in such a way that it does not become fouled (tangled) when the anchor is dropped. So if someone calls you a flake, you are either a weak link or about to disappear.

Flotsam and Jetsam
These are legal terms in maritime law. Flotsam is any part of the wreckage of a ship or her cargo that is lost by accident and found floating on the surface of the water. Jetsam are goods or equipment deliberately thrown overboard (jettisoned) to make the ship more stable in high winds or heavy seas. (Lagan are goods cast overboard with a rope attached so that they may be retrieved and sometimes refers to goods remaining inside a sunken ship or lying on the bottom.) The term flotsam and jetsam shore-side means odds and ends of no great value.

A light wind at sea that does not blow steadily from any one quarter. Variable.

An easily set extra sail used temporarily when running before the wind (wind coming from behind). Has come to mean ‘here today, gone tomorrow’, or a less-than-stellar reputation.

The foot is the bottom of a sail, whether triangular or square, that is attached to the boom to keep it stretched. A sail that is not attached to the boom is said to be footloose and is very difficult to control as it moves with the wind. The term ‘footloose and fancy free’ refers to the motion of a footloose sail.

A sailing vessel gripes when, by poor design or imbalance of sail, it tends to end up with its bow into the wind when sailing close-hauled. The sails flap around, forward progress is halted and she is very hard to steer. On land, the term means to complain, complain, complain.

Grog, Groggy
Rum diluted with water. Brandy was part of a sailor’s daily rations in the Royal Navy until the conquest of Jamaica in 1687 when rum replaced it. In 1740, Admiral Vernon decided his fleet got a little too much rum and issued an order to have the daily ration of one pint of rum diluted with water. Since Vernon’s nickname was ‘Old Grogram’ because of the material out of which his (apparently rather ostentatious) ‘boat cloak’ was made. The watered down rum immediately became known as grog. Groggy is what happens to you when you indulge in it (even watered down).

Ground Swell
A sudden swell, which is the rise of water, along the shore. It often happens when the weather is fine and the sea behind it appears calm. Said to occur when undulating water from a far away storm reaches the shoreline where friction causes the swell. In common use, the term groundswell means a growing change in public opinion.

Half Seas Over
A ship run aground on reef or rock with seas breaking over her. Not much can be done in this situation. The expression has come to mean a person so inebriated as to be incapable of steering a steady course.

Hand Over Fist
Hand over hand was a British term for the act of moving quickly up a rope or hoisting a sail, which was a matter of pride and competition among sailors. It is thought that American sailors changed this term to ‘hand over fist’, and the term now means to advance or accumulate rapidly.

Hard Up
Hard is another often used nautical term. To put the helm hard over is to put it as far as it will go in that direction. Hard and fast describes a vessel firmly aground and unable to make progress and has come ashore to mean rigid. ‘Hard up in a clinch and no knife to cut the seizing’, the term from which hard up derives, was a sailor’s way of saying he had been overtaken by misfortune and saw no way of getting clear of it. Shore-side, the term means in need.

Long before fraternal organizations, hazing was the practice of keeping the crew working all hours of the day or night, whether necessary or not, in order to deprive them of sleep and to make them generally miserable. In the 19th century, many captains used this practice to assert their authority. Hazing has come to mean the initiation of a newcomer to a group by humiliating and harassing him or her, thereby asserting the authority of the group.

Hot Chase
A principle of naval warfare, though without basis in law, that allowed a fleeing enemy to be followed into neutral waters and captured there if the chase had begun in international waters. The term hot pursuit derives from this ‘principle’.

Hotchpotch, Hodgepodge
Hotchpotch was a maritime term describing the method of equally dividing cargo and property damaged when two ships have collided and both are deemed to be responsible. Current usage of hodgepodge means ‘a jumble’.

Hulk, Hulking
A large and unwieldy ship of simple construction and dubious seaworthiness. On shore, it means big and clumsy.

Idler, Idle
Idler was the name for those members of a ship’s crew that did not stand night watch because of their work. Carpenters, sailmakers, cooks, etc. worked during the day and were excused from watch duty at night. They were called idlers, but not because they had nothing to do, simply because they were off duty at night.

Old rope no longer able to take a load, it was cut into shorter lengths and used to make mops and mats. Land-side, junk is all that stuff in your garage you know you’ll need right after you throw it away.

Jury Rig
A temporary repair to keep a disabled ship sailing until it could make port, such as a jury sail erected when the mast was lost or a jury rudder as an emergency means of steering when the ship’s rudder was damaged.

Keel Hauling
A severe naval punishment during the 15th and 16th centuries. The victim, presumably a delinquent sailor, was dragged from one side of the boat to the other, under the bottom of the boat (keel). Tossed over one side and pulled up on the other, he was usually allowed to catch his breath before suddenly being tossed overboard again.  Keel hauling lost favor at the beginning of the 18th century, to be replaced by the cat-o-nine-tails. The term still means a rough reprimand.

Knowing the Ropes
This is pretty obvious if you’ve ever seen a tall ship. It was such an important skill on sailing vessels that an honorable discharge from service was marked, at one time, with the term ‘knows the ropes’. Land-side it still means a person with experience and skill.