On the Western Rivers (the Missippi and its tributaries) you will find a few oddities used in "Radio Speak." Here are a few things you might hear -
A common radio contact concerns the overtaking and passing of a barge. Invariably, the non-commercial boat will ask the towboat which side they should pass on. I have never heard a towboat say anything other than "either side." The proper way to do this is to state your intentions, eg, "Southbound tow at John Hartford light, this is the Northbound pleasure craft, one whistle." The tow will tell you "five whistles" which means danger and he doesn't like that or "one whistle" which means OK.
- "I am Southbound" - As we know, rivers go all over the place, not following nice neat North, South, East and West directions. On the Mississippi and its tributaries, Southbound means downstream (as in down the lower Missippi) and Northbound means upstream.
- "Left bank" or "left descending bank" - OK, a left bank could be either bank, depending on whether you are going upstream or downstream. The "descending" part gives you a hint. Left or Right banks always are visualized as if going downstream, or South.
- "One whistle" or "see you on one" - this refers to whistle/horn signals. Let's say you are approaching a barge that is still a distance away and you want to go into a cove to your port. You could hail the barge on the VHF and tell him "Two whistles." That lets the barge know you want to go to the side of the river with the cove on it. If he has a problem he will tell you, or say "Five whistles" which means he can't do it and you'd better give him "one whistle" or come to a stop. On a crowded lake, it helps to repeat the signal with your spot light, so the barge can identify who you are visually.
- "Snag" - A tree that is partially, or fully below the water.
- "Point" - The inside of a curve, or a normal protrusion for the shore. It is a useful term when describing your position in a sharp bend of the river, where passing may be difficult. For example, "I am hugging the point"
- "Mayday" - The universal call for help. Repeat three times. Give your boat name, position, nature of the emergency, seaworthiness of the boat and the number of souls on board. After giving all the facts listen for someone to respond. Don't stop after the initial "mayday" until you give all the information.
- "Up the hill" - This doesn't refer to going upstream, it means on the bank of the river. "Another 2 hours and I'm going up the hill," means you will be off the boat in 2 hours.
Annouce your direction of travel and the name of your boat at prominant landmarks such as: after leaving a lock, at a City Marina, etc. That will let other boats on the River know you boat's name and give them a chance to let you know you will meet them somewhere on the River.
You should be familiar with the horn signals in the rules of the road for the Western Rivers. These signals can be given with a horn, a light or over the VHF. However, they are required to be given by horn, unless radio contact is positively established.
I recommend a copy of As They Say on the River, a $9.95 book of definitions.