Radio Calls On the Water

By Johna Till Johnson and Vladimir Brezina

We couldn’t possibly write about this topic without first referencing Bowsprite’s prior posts here and here. Not only did she accurately (and highly entertainingly) capture the lingo, her whimsical drawings are one-of-a kind!

Negotiating ferry traffic in New York Harbor

When out kayaking in New York Harbor, we carry marine radios for several reasons: To call for help if something goes wiggy; to stay abreast of developments on the water; and, where appropriate, to advise larger vessels of our intentions.

But one of the more captivating aspects of kayaking with a radio in the harbor is simply the opportunity to listen to exchanges between the captains of commercial vessels.

We often monitor Channel 13, which is the commercial shipping bridge-to-bridge channel. This is where ships ranging from ferries to cargo ships communicate. It’s a chance to listen to the lingo of those who, unlike us, navigate these waters on a daily basis as part of their professions.

Traffic passing at close quarters in the Kill Van Kull

Ship captains typically advise each other of their current positions and stated directions, and often conduct brief negotiations. As in any professional environment, there are abbreviations:

  • The Kill Van Kull is the “kay-vee”
  • The Hudson River is “North River”
  • Hell Gate is “the Gate”

So you might hear a captain announce, “Heading westbound through the gate” or “Under the Verrazano, northbound to the KV.”

And there’s nautical jargon:

  • “One whistle” means “I want to pass you on my port (left) side”
  • “Two whistles” means “I want to pass you on my starboard (right) side”

Amusingly, nowadays the ships never actually issue a whistle. Instead, the captains call each other and indicate their intentions: “Heading northbound on North River. Two whistles?” “Two whistles, sir.”

In contrast to these important navigational messages on Channel 13, on Channel 6 the conversations, sometimes in delightful varieties of English, seem to be about such mundane matters as arrangements for garbage disposal and the correct way to complete the required paperwork.

On Channel 13, professional courtesy is usually maintained. Captains refer to each other as “Captain”, and make sure to confirm receipt of messages by saying, “Copy that.”

Waiting for heavy traffic to pass before cross the Kill Van Kull, in daylight for once

But every now and then a bit of human emotion creeps through. Some months back, we were crossing the Kill Van Kull headed northward. This is always challenging, given that “the Kill” is one of the busiest shipping channels in the harbor. You literally never know when a tug or a cargo ship will bear down on you (usually silently). And the captains aren’t watching out for tiny boats in their paths.

To top it off, this crossing was at night, just after sunset. There was still a bit of luminous late-spring glow in the sky, but we were largely navigating by lights and radio. We’d just spotted a couple of tugs coming through the Kill and were weighing the decision to sprint across the channel, when the following exchange ensued:

Captain 1: “Coming eastbound through the Kill.”
Captain 2: “Roger that. By the way, there are a couple of kayakers out there right now, you’ll need to watch out, I don’t know what they’re doing.”

He then added, in a voice heavy with disdain, “Geniuses!”

At that point Johna picked up the radio and said, “Captain, this is the kayakers, we’re waiting for you to go by. We’re staying out of your way.”

Captain 2 (voice suddenly perfectly professional): “Roger that. Thank you.”

The best exchange, though, was this summer. We were returning from a trip to the Lower Bay. Ahead of us, a large container ship was heading north under the Verrazano Bridge, likely heading to Port Newark. A sailboat, heading south, was in the channel, almost directly in its path.

A big blue ship under the Verrazano

Suddenly the radio crackled, with a message that clearly was intended to be understood by even the dimmest boater: “This is the big blue ship heading northbound under the Verrazano, calling the sailboat heading south. You might want to move over to the side because we’re really big and moving really fast.”

We didn’t hear what the sailboat said, but there wasn’t a collision. So we’re guessing the sailboat got the message.

3 responses to “Radio Calls On the Water

  1. Marcos Dinnerstein

    This is a priceless post, thanks. Great tone.

    I lead some of the public trips for the Downtown Boathouse and sometimes John / Joan Q Public doesn’t really understand what can happen when communications go awry.


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Hi Marcos,
      Thanks much! Yes, it can be challenging when communications go awry! I won’t soon forget when the ms Vandeem failed to signal when it pulled out into the Hudson, as described here. Guess that illustrates the dangers of relying TOO heavily on electronic tools… :-).

      Thanks for visiting.. and posting!


  2. Pingback: We All Love the Yellow Submarine! | Wind Against Current

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