Z is for Zulu

a to z - p4903_Nautical Alphabet_LRG
This post is a little more modern than a lot of the other posts, but to cut to the chase, Zulu is the phonetic spelling for the letter ‘z’ in marine radio communications. For years, how folks spoke over marine radios was a mystery to me. They’d use these key words and tricky phrases that didn’t seem to be written down any place. When I’d try to spell something out over the phone for some computer guy from Berzerkistan, my phonetic spelling was completely ad-hoc. My name, for example, was ‘B as in Boy, O as in Orangutan, B as in … Bathtub’ but the whole alphabet was beyond me, so this addresses that in a small way. But before I delve too deeply into that, a little background is required.

Even since the advent of sailing craft, communication between vessels has been vital. In earlier days flag and speaking trumpets were the standard but now it’s mainly radio. Marine radios are important especially if you’re going any distance from land, particularly if you’re going out of sight of land. The most common type for recreational boaters is VHF-FM. You can call for help, arrange for a berth at a marina, get weather information, call home or talk with other boaters. This all sounds wonderful but there are a few caveats. FCC regulations state that marine radios are to send and receive information about safety, operations and commerce only. No other type of message is permissible. So, no chit-chat. And a little side note, das ist verboten to use your marine radio whilst you are on land, even whilst your boat is on the trailer. I don’t know what ze punishment vould be, other than fines and/or ostracism, but still it’s against the rules. Now onto a few details of how to use a marine radio.

When you use that radio, there are certain words called Procedure words or PROWORDS that are used in a particular way if you want to be readily understood. Certain PROWORDS and what they mean to the person on the other end are as follows:

OUT-this is the end of my transmission to you, no answer is expected or required.

OVER-this is the end of my transmission and a response is expected, go ahead and transmit.

ROGER-I got your last transmission ok.

WILCO-Your last message was received, understood and will be complied with.

THIS IS-this transmission is from the station whose name and call sign follows immediately.

FIGURES-figures or numbers to follow. For example, if you’re telling the Coast Guard how long your vessel is so that they know what size of boat to look for, you might say in your transmission ‘Vessel length is FIGURES two three feet’, meaning your boat is twenty three feet long.

SPEAK SLOWER-your transmission was difficult to understand, speak more slowly


WORDS TWICE-it is difficult to understand you, give each phrase twice.

I SPELL-I shall spell the next word phonetically (this is where the ‘z’ for zulu comes in). This is used when a proper name is important in the message. For example, “Boat name is Dora, I SPELL-Delta, Oscar, Romeo, Alpha.”

WAIT-I must pause for a few seconds

WAIT OUT-I must pause for longer than a few seconds, I will call you back.

AFFIRMATIVE-You are correct, what you have transmitted is correct


There is one more PROWORD that I must mention and that is MAYDAY. It is the distress signal that precedes a distress message about a grave and imminent danger and a request for immediate help. MAYDAY comes from the French expression ‘M’aidez’, meaning ‘help me’. It is to be used when your boat is on fire and is getting too big for you to fight, or if you are taking on water and are in imminent danger of sinking. It is not to be used when you run out of beer and/or gasoline within sight of land. A better way to deal with those things is to contact a marine tow service via your marine radio or even cell phone. MAYDAY is for when serious stuff is hitting the fan.

Here’s where ‘zulu’ comes in. Regarding the I SPELL and the subject of this post, the phonetic alphabet is used when signals are weak and/or reception is poor. The phonetic alphabet is as follows, at least for the US. The first meaning is the letter designation, the second is the meaning the flag carries when it is flown as a single signal flag:

A-ALPHA – unable to maneuver, keep clear (also used as diver down flag)

B-BRAVO – dangerous cargo


D-DELTA – keep clear

E-ECHO – altering course to starboard (that’s to the right)

F-FOXTROT – disabled

G-GOLF – want a pilot

H-HOTEL – pilot on board

I-INDIA – altering course to port

J-JULIETT – on fire, keep clear

K-KILO – desire to communicate

L-LIMA – stop instantly

M-MIKE – I am stopped


O-OSCAR – man overboard

P-PAPA – about to sail

Q-QUEBEC – request pratique (clearance granted to proceed into port after compliance with health regulations or quarantine)

R-ROMEO – (no message associated with Romeo at this time)

S-SIERRA – engines going astern

T-TANGO – keep clear

U-UNIFORM – standing into danger

V-VICTOR – require assistance

W-WHISKEY – require medical assistance (I’ve always wondered if they mean ‘need whiskey’)

X-XRAY – stop your intention

Y-YANKEE – am dragging anchor

Z-ZULU – require a tug

There are, of course, a plethora of other signals. There is an entire Corps of the military dedicated to communication and the making of signals, called, strangely enough, the Signal Corps. They are in charge of waving flags around to communicate between ships. Signal flags corresponding to the letters of the alphabet and combinations of those flags signal orders or intentions, especially in military ships. These are all listed in H.O. 102, The International Code of Signals and like we used to read in high school math books, more is left for the ‘serious’ student. Which I’m not.

a to z - EnglandExpects

The most famous signal that I know of is Nelson’s last message at Trafalgar, ‘England Expects Every Man to Do His Duty’ (which conceptually seems a lot like ‘just close your eyes and think of England’ in a way) and just for grins I give it to you here.

I would like to thank all of you who have kept up reading my little scribblings through this month. It’s been a lot of fun and I appreciate everyone giving their time to read. Take care, and just remember like the old charts used to show at the edge of the world, beyond this point there be dragons.

a to z - red-sea-monster-serpent