Lessons Learned – by Pat Carson

Lessons Learned

10-4 Over And Out

Do you cringe as much as I do when you hear “10-4, over and out” on the marine VHF radio? Every hobby and profession has its own unique vocabulary and 10 codes do not belong on your maritime radio. In a span of just two months, I heard the phrase “10-4, over and out” used twice. Once in the San Francisco Bay Area on channel 16 and again in the San Juan Islands on channel 09. The second time I heard it, my co-captain and I looked at each other, chuckled and decided at that time it irked me enough to pen a short article on proper VHF radio procedure.

So, what is wrong with this radio transmission? First, 10 codes such as 10-4 are used on the Citizens Band, CB radio, and some law enforcement and public safety agencies, not in maritime communication. Second, “over” indicates that you have finished your transmission and are now waiting for a reply. “Out” means that you have finished the communication with the other station and are not waiting for a reply.

Ten-codes, including 10-4, are still used by mostly truckers.

Although both “over” and “out” are used in maritime communication they are never used together as the meanings conflict.

So, what is proper etiquette and procedure for use of our VHF marine radios? I will answer that, but first a little history.

10-Codes – If You Really Want To Know

Invented in the late 1930s for public safety, 10-codes were developed as a shorthand to communicate specific information quickly and clearly. While 10-codes are still in use in some public safety agencies, 10-codes, including 10-4, have been replaced by plain language in more and more police departments due to variation in what the codes mean. Truckers and other CB radio users, however, still use them.

Although 10-4 has become a staple expression for saying “OK” in American pop culture, appearing as we have seen in everything from old-time TV shows to everyday conservations. 10-4 has been popularized and is well recognized as meaning “I understand,” but did you know that there are many dozens of 10-codes, many with different meanings depending on the service using them?

Some of the 10-codes that you will hear on the CB radio or public safety radio service include:

  • 10-7 – out of service.
  • 10-8 – in service.
  • 10-20 – location.

And for someone with nothing to say 10-36 – what is the correct time?

Interestingly, there are more than 50 10-codes, many with different meanings depending on the agency that is using them. For example:

  • 10-1 – can mean either unable to copy because of a weak signal or police officer needs help.
  • 10-10 – can be either fight in progress, police officer off duty or I am assigned to traffic detail.
  • 10-30 – can be danger, vehicle accident or unnecessary use of the radio.

I could continue, but I think you get the point. There is no uniformity with 10-codes except perhaps 10-4.

Q-Codes – Good To Know But Not In Common Usage

In the early 1900’s the British Government developed a list of abbreviations for use in radio communications by ships and coast stations. Shortly after the British Government published these Q-codes they were adopted internationally and facilitated communication between vessels speaking different languages. Over the years the original Q-codes were modified to reflect changes in radio practice. By the 1970s, the Post Office Handbook for Radio Operators listed over a hundred Q-codes covering a wide range of subjects including radio procedures, meteorology, radio direction finding, and search and rescue.

Most law enforcement agencies stopped using 10 codes and now use plain language for communication.

Some Q-codes are also used in aviation, in particular QNE, QNH and QFE, referring to certain altimeter settings. These codes are used in radio-telephone conversations with air traffic control as unambiguous shorthand where safety and efficiency are of vital importance. The QAA–QNZ code range includes phrases applicable primarily to the aeronautical service, as defined by the International Civil Aviation Organization. The QOA–QQZ code range is reserved for the maritime service. The QRA–QUZ code range includes phrases applicable to all services and is allocated to the International Telecommunication Union.

Today, Q-signals are not substantially used in the maritime service. Morse code is now very rarely used for maritime communications, but in isolated maritime regions like Antarctica and the South Pacific the use of Q-codes continues. Q-codes still work when HF voice circuits are not possible due to atmospheric conditions and communication only by digital means or Morse code are possible.

In the early 1900’s the British government developed a list of of abbreviations for use in radio communications by Ships and Coast Stations.

Amateur radio has adapted Q-codes for use in amateur communications. These are harmonized with the ITU civil series QRA through QUZ. Most of the meanings are identical to the ITU definitions. However, they must be looked at in the context of amateur communications.

Some of the more common of the 100 or so harmonized Q-codes are:

  • QRL – are you busy?
  • QSL – I acknowledge receipt.
  • QTH – my location is.

And for that same guy with nothing to say QTR – what is the correct time?

Plain Language Shorthand

Most communication via radio today is conducted in plain language, however there are a few shorthands that are in common use on our marine VHF. These are radio-specific terms that are designed to provide clarity and ease of communication so that there’s no confusion and parties can be easily understood.

It may seem a bit outdated with today’s technology, but keep in mind that these traditions developed out of military use so they’re probably not going anywhere anytime soon. Thankfully, they’re all fairly easy terms to remember and with a little bit of practice, you’ll be a pro in no time.

Do you read – A question about whether your transmission has been received and understood.

  • Copy – Is used when communication between two or more other stations that includes information for you. This is not the same as Roger.
  • Over – This is the end of my transmission to you and a response is necessary. Go ahead and transmit, I am listening.
  • Out – This is the end of my transmission to you and no answer is required or expected.
  • Radio check – What is my signal strength and readability. An appropriate response would be Loud and Clear or Weak but Readable. Radio checks are never conducted on VHF Ch. 16. Only conduct radio signal checks on VHF Ch. 09.
  • Read back – Please repeat my last transmission back to me.
  • Roger – I have received your last transmission satisfactorily. This does not imply that you will comply with any requests, only that you have received the message. This came into use as a result from radiotelegraph used with Morse code letter R – to signify that the previous transmission was received. The use was adopted in early voice communications before a unified phonetic alphabet.
  • Say again – I have not understood your message and please repeat. Usually used after a proword such as All After or All Before.
  • Standby – I must pause for a few seconds.
  • Wait – I must pause for longer than a few seconds and will call you back when ready.
  • Wilco – Short for Will Comply means that I understand the order and will comply.

And to be grammatically correct, remember that radio transmissions are from the station whose designator immediately follows. For clarity, the station called should be named before the station calling. This is ground control to Major Tom, is incorrect. The correct message would be Major Tom, this is ground control. Roger Wilco is also incorrect since Roger means I heard and understood you but might not do what you request, whereas Wilco means I heard and understood you and will do what you request. Both Copy that and Roger that are terms used to communicate that a message was received and understood, however there is a difference. Copy that implies that a message was received but that the message was for informational purposes only. Roger that implies that the message requires the recipient to take some action and that they intend to act according to the order received.

The Phonetic Alphabet

Back in the early days of voice radio communication, voice transmissions were often weak, had lots of static and were often distorted, making the words difficult to understand at times. This led to a lot of confusion when it came to certain key terms and code words such as names, locations, identification codes, etc. The phonetic alphabet was developed to ensure that there was always clarity in communication:

The phonetic alphabet is all standardized by NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and is recognized by all English-speaking countries and marine forces. There are differences between other users of the phonetic alphabet such as local law enforcement and other government agencies. You don’t need to use the phonetic alphabet for every single word you say, but when it comes to important things these should always be used to provide clarity. 

Code Flags

The International Code of Signals is an international system of signals and codes for use by vessels to communicate important messages regarding safety of navigation and related matters.

Although each letter of the alphabet and every number 0-9 has a specific flag and a specific meaning when flown, some of the more common ones that you will see around the West Coast of the United States are listed on the next page.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Radio Regulations and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Convention and Procedures for Air Navigation Services set out “distress, urgency and safety procedures.” On the radio, distress (emergency) and rescue usage take precedence above all other usage, and the radio stations at the scene of the disaster on land, in a plane or on a boat are authorized to commandeer the frequency and prohibit all transmissions that are not involved in assisting them. These procedure words originate in the International Radio Regulations.

  • MAYDAY – is used internationally as the official SOS/distress call for voice. It means the caller, their vessel or a person aboard the vessel is in grave and imminent danger, and is in need of immediate assistance. This call takes priority over all other calls.

The correct format for a Mayday call is as follows:

  • Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.
  • This is: vessel name repeated three times, followed by call sign if available.
  • My position is: position as GPS Coordinates, bearing and distance from a fixed point, or general vicinity to a fixed point.
  • I am: type of distress, for example fire, uncontrolled flooding or medical emergency.
  • I need: for example, I require immediate assistance.
  • I have: number of people on board and their condition.
  • Any other information such as we have launched the life raft and are abandoning ship.
  • OVER.

PAN-PAN – is the official urgency voice call meaning my vessel or a person aboard my vessel requires assistance but is not in distress. This overrides all but a Mayday call, and is used as an example, for calling for medical assistance or if the station has no means of propulsion. The correct usage is:

  • Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan.
  • All stations, all stations, all stations.
  • This is: vessel name repeated three times.
  • My position is: position as GPS Coordinates, bearing and distance from a fixed point or general vicinity to a fixed point.
  • I am: type of distress, for example I have lost propulsion and adrift in the shipping lane.
  • I need: what type of assistance are you requesting, for example, I need a few gallons of gas.
  • I have: number of people on board and their condition.
  • OVER.

SÉCURITÉ – is the official safety voice call for passing important meteorological, navigational or safety information. This call is normally broadcast on channel 16 and then moved onto another channel to pass the message. Example:

On channel 16.

  • All stations, all stations, all stations.
  • This is United States Coast Guard San Francisco, This is United States Coast Guard San Francisco, This is United States Coast Guard San Francisco.
  • For important safety information switch and listen to Channel 1022.
  • OUT.

What Channels Do I Use

Every VHF marine radio channel has a use designation. Many commercial fishing boats and some recreational boaters have their own favorite channel on which to communicate, and you might be surprised that the VHF marine channel that you have been using for years is reserved for commercial traffic.

Almost everyone is aware that channel 16 is for hailing and distress, but do you know the rules regarding the other channels? An example would be that channel 09 is used to hail bridges in the Delta but is also a secondary hailing channel in parts of the United States. In 1992, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established channel 09 as a supplementary calling channel for non-commercial vessels at the request of the Coast Guard. A ship or shore unit wishing to call a boater would do so on channel 09, and anyone wishing to call a commercial ship or shore activity would continue to do so on channel 16.

Recreational boaters would continue to call the Coast Guard and any commercial facility on channel 16. The purpose of the FCC regulation was 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 09 or channel 16 whenever the radio is turned on and not communicating with another station. For the San Francisco sector we continue to keep our radios set to channel 16 and use channel 09 for contacting bridges.

Since the Coast Guard generally does not have the capability of announcing an urgent marine information broadcast or weather warning on channel 09 the use of this channel is optional. It is generally recommended that we continue to keep our VHF radios tuned to and continue to use channel 16.

As recreational boaters we are allowed to use channels listed as non-commercial for non-priority communication. Once contact is established with another recreational vessel on channel 16, we then select one of the five non-commercial channels, 68, 69, 71, 72 or 1078 to carry out our conversation. Remember, these are all shared channels and if a particular channel is already in use you will need to select another or wait until the current users are finished with their communication.

Channel 13 should be used to contact a commercial vessel to make navigational arrangements or when there is danger of collision. Channel 13 is designated for use on a world-wide basis as a navigation safety communication channel, primarily for inter-ship navigation safety communications. It may also be used for ship movement and port operations services subject to local regulations. All vessels 20 meters (65 feet) or greater in length are required to continuously monitor VHF channel 13 in addition to VHF channel 16 when operating within U.S. Territorial Waters unless they are participating in San Francisco Vessel Traffic Services. Sequential monitoring techniques such as scanners cannot be used to meet this requirement. Two radios including handhelds or one radio with two receivers are required.

In San Francisco Bay, the Delta North to Sacramento, South to Stockton and a 38-mile radius from Mt. Tamalpais past the Golden Gate Bridge, every power-driven vessel greater than 40 meters in length (131 feet), every towing vessel greater than eight meters in length (26 feet) and every vessel that carries more than 50 passengers for hire must report vessel movement to Vessel Traffic Services on Channel 14 inland and Channel 12 offshore.

Vessels are not required to keep a listening watch on channel 16 when a listening watch is maintained on both the vessel bridge-to-bridge frequency, channel 13 and a designated VTS frequency, channel 12 or channel 14. If you need to communicate with any of these commercial vessels, they are most likely not listening to channel 16 – use channel 13. These vessels are required to use AIS so the vessel name should appear on your AIS-equipped chartplotter or VHF radio. If you are planning a summer in Puget Sound or north into Canadian waters, be aware that Seattle has a vessel traffic service and Canada has two.

The Seattle Vessel Traffic Center is located at Pier 36 in Seattle and monitors the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Rosario Strait, Admiralty Inlet and Puget Sound south as far as Olympia. Since 1979, the U.S. Coast Guard has worked cooperatively with the Canadian Coast Guard in managing vessel traffic in adjacent waters. Through the Cooperative Vessel Traffic Service (CVTS), two Canadian vessel traffic centers work hand in hand with Puget Sound Vessel Traffic Service. Prince Rupert MCTS (Marine Communications and Traffic Services) manages the area west of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. North of the Strait of Juan de Fuca through Haro Strait to Vancouver, B.C. is managed by VICTORIA MCTS. The three vessel traffic centers communicate via a computer link and dedicated telephone lines to advise each other of vessels passing between their respective zones.

If you are navigating in Canadian waters and your vessel is greater than 30 meters in length or 40 meters in U.S. waters, then participation in vessel traffic services is mandatory. For vessels greater than 20 meters in length, participation is recommended, but not required.

Lessons Learned

The VHF radio is one of the best safety devices we can have on board our vessels. Before you purchase anything else, make sure you have a VHF marine radio. It is probably also the least expensive electronic device we have. If you plan to travel more than a few miles offshore, plan to purchase a second VHF radio.

Pay attention to which channels you are authorized to use for communication and minimize the chances of interfering with someone else’s conversation. And please use proper radio procedures and etiquette with your marine VHF radio.

As a final reminder, when you sell your vessel or make a new purchase do not forget to deregister the MMSI and then reregister with your correct information. All the other safety equipment on your vessel, EPIRB, SART, PLB, etc. use the data that is registered with the MMSI.

In an emergency, time is of the essence and delays can be fatal.

Until next month, I am going to sit back and enjoy a cigar and a fine port that was a gift from a client as I monitor the VHF radios.

Until then, please keep those letters coming. Even the ones where you slam me for my oversights and errors. If you have a good story to tell, I love a good story.

If you have good photos of right and wrong, please send them and I will include them in next edition of “Is It Right Or Is It Wrong” I can be reached at patcarson@yachtsmanmagazine.com