October 30, 2020
Ferry Facts: Sounds of the Sea
What's That Sound?To many. the Cape May-Lewes Ferry horn blast is a welcomed and familiar sound that can mean everything from coming home to seeing relatives, going on vacation, or already being home close to one of our docks. But, our ferry horn is more than just a local sound unique to our area. Similar to naval flags, the sounds of maritime vessels have particular meanings. Thanks to a question by our customer service team, here is a bit more detail on the meanings behind our well-known ferry blasts.
Sailors' Communications Systems
Before each vessel leaves dock, one longer blast is heard from the vessel's horn followed by three additional shorter blasts. In some cases, the blasts seem shorter than others. Why? And what do they mean?
What They Are
The sounds are part of U.S. maritime rules established under The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Under the rules, the vessel's horn, or whistle, creates required sound blasts to communicate with other ships in the area. Although the horn is felt by some on land to be a friendly "Adieu" to those being left landside, in actuality the blasts are signals to other vessels on the water.
Whenever a powered vessel is leaving a dock or berth, the crew is required to sound one prolonged blast to signal that the ship is leaving dock. Therefore, the first blast heard each time a ferry leaves port is a longer tone. It's basically saying to anyone within hearing range, "I'm leaving now."
The long blast is followed by three short blasts. These sounds together are marine language for: "I am operating astern propulsion," or in layman's terms "I'm backing up," similar to the backup sounds heard on large trucks and busses pulling out of parking spaces. This alerts all watercraft in the area that the ferry is leaving the dock and to take necessary precautions.
If a nearby vessel cannot maneuver safely away, or is unclear about the intent, they must sound in return. Return sounds can vary from 1-2 short blasts to indicate how the moving vessel intends to pass the ferry, or five rapid short blasts-- the danger signal -- to alert the ferry that they can't clear the path, don't understand the instructions, or feel a collision may be imminent.
By regulation any vessel over 12 meters (approxiately 36 ft) is required to have sound equipment on board to alert other vessels in the area about intended manuevers. Our ferries are approximatley 320 ft in length. or over 100 meters.
Short vs Long Blasts
A short blast is defined as any that is at least one second in duration and a prolonged blast is from 4-5 seconds in duration. Captain Rick McCann was known for the longest blasts, but if you timed them, they were never more than 3-5 seconds each, which may have seemed long, but were merely on the longer end of each blast requirement. Trained in the Navy, Captain McCann tended to prefer strict interpretation of Navy regulations which lent him to use the maximum time allotments for each of his horn blasts.
Sound signals are important, but only one part of many martime communication systems. Because electronic devices can prove faulty, and lights can get diffused in fog, sound systems are an important element in ongoing communications between vessels at sea -- hence, the sound of ongoing fog horns whenever our ferries are crossing the bay in low-visibility situations.
Other signals you may occasionally hear our vessels sound -- usually at the dock in Cape May -- are related to readiness drills our crews perform on a frequent basis. To call the crew to their duties in case of fire, the captain sounds a continuous blast of the vessel's whistle for a period of not less than 10 seconds supplemented by a similar signal signed on the general alarm bells.
The signal for abandon ship is more than six short blasts followed by one long blast of the vessel's whistle. In case of a man overboard situation, three prolonged blasts are sounded sometimes followed by a short blast to indicate which side of the vessel the person is in the water -- one for starboard or two for port. Dismissal from drills is signaled by three short blasts of the whistle.
An Alphabet Of Its Own
Maritime/military communications has its own history and traditions that allows fleets, troops and allied teams from various countries with different languages to communicate when in the field, at-sea or from ship-to-shore. For instance, the yellow and blue flag above stands for the letter "K" and can be used to spell out a full word, but if used alone simply means "I wish to communicate with you." Above the flag you'll see the Morse Code signals also assigned to Kilo -- one long dash followed by a dot and another long dash. This shows the sound code affiliated with the same letter.
Clear communications became critical in both WWI and then WWII between Allied Forces. Following both wars, NATO - the North Atlantic Treaty Organization - adopted a phonetic alphabet in 1957 still called the NATO Phonetic Alphabet. In it, each letter has a corresponding code word and sound. The letter A, or instance, is Alpha also signified in sound with a dot and a dash. This special military alphabet is also called the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet. The purpose was to allow for clearer communications when radio signals went raspy.
To see all the letter codes and their affiliate Morse Code sounds go to this Wikipedia page on the NATO Alphabet. Interestingly for a serious military code, the alphabet is somewhat romantic assigning J to Juliet and R to Romeo. If you'd like to learn more about the entire alphabet check out this short YouTube video on the full code.
Long before social media had acronyms such as LOL, TYVM, or ROTFL, military teams were creating their own short hand for phrases. For instance Tango Yankee (TY) means "Thank You" and Lima Charlie (LC) means "Loud and Clear."
This past June, the Ferry started signaling Bravo Zulu for Job Well Done to local health care workers at 5:45 and 7:30 respectively in Cape May and Lewes. To read more about the signal, go to Bravo Zulu article on CMLF.com. Wondering why it's Bravo Zulu rather than Whiskey Delta for Well Done? The signal dates back to naval history that predates the NATO codes and has been grandfathered.
Happy Birthday Song
Finally, because the Ferry horn is such a well-known sound in the area, when the Ferry turned 50 in 2014, a marketing intern created a fun video in complete disregard of Morse code. But, kids love finding it on the Ferry YouTube channel and you might enjoy it as well.
Recycling Quiz: Test your recycling knowledge with this short, 5-question quiz. Hint: Two of the questions have more than one answer so feel free to check off more than one box if you think there is more than one right answer. If you've been reading this section of the weekly newsletter, we're willing to bet you get most, if not all, of the answers right. Here's the link: