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By Capt. Ed Huntsman
Boating Co-Editor 

VHF Marine Band Radio – How Do I Use It?

Follow these basic proper VHF protocols, and everyone will be in for a better boating experience — and a safer one, too.


It never fails – every time I’m on the water, be it on a powerboat, and sailboat or paddling I always hear a boater doing a radio check. And frequently, others demonstrating their total lack of understanding on proper radio procedure by engaging in two-minute plus conversations on channel 16 while everyone else listens in –- not unlike the person speaking loudly on their cell phone in a restaurant.Many apparently justdon’t understand, or have not taken the time to learn how to properly use their VHF marine band radio. And next to a life jacket and anchor, a good VHF radio is one of the best safety investments you can make.

First Things First

First things first; read the owners manual! There’s lots of relevant and good information on basic procedures – not to mention what settings should be used depending on how far you want to broadcast based on the wattage selected: low, medium or high. There’s also generally a list of which channels should be used for specific types of traffic (communications) and which channels are restricted and shouldn’t be used by recreational boaters.

It should be noted that often, many recreational boaters depend on their cell phone as the principal tool for communication. And if there is a good, strong signal that’s fine. However, in many recreational boating areas, particularly out west on inland lakes with high canyon walls and remote access, cell towers may be out of range. And its important to note that should an emergency or other urgent issues arise, everyone that can help you has a VHF marine band radio and monitors channel 16.

Four Levels Of Priority

You need to know there are four levels of priority when it comes to using a VHF marine band radio, especially when broadcasting on channel 16.

The first, a “May Day” is an emergency event or situation that could result in serious injury and bodily harm, including the loss of life.

Second, a “Pan-Pan” (pronounced pon-pon) used for safety and indicates a situation that may turn into an emergency, or that the Coast Guard (CG) needs to be aware of so in the event the situation goes south and immediate assistance is needed the CG is already a step ahead.

Third, “Securite” (pronounced securitay) is any type of navigational or safety information that could affect the safe conduct of navigation. For example, a submerged object just below the surface of the water.

And forth, the basic and non-emergency hailing call to a land based station or another vessel with whom you wish to communicate.

In an extreme emergency where the risk of life or death exists, make sure your radio is on high power so your broadcast will reach the maximum distance possible. Your broadcast should be specific and communicate the nature of the emergency, name and description of your boat, location (latitude and longitude ispreferable), number of people on board and the nature of help you need. This broadcast would start with “May-Day” stated firmly, and calmly three times followed with the rest of the information. Wait 30 seconds or so for a response from either the Coast Guard or other source of help.

Once you’ve established contact with another boater, you may get some questions such as the size and type of the boat you're on, the number and age of the people on board, if anyone has any medical training if it's applicable to the situation and what supplies you may need. Even if you don't get a response initially, continue making the complete broadcast every 30 seconds with those first pieces of information.Someone may be hearing you, listening and passing on the information to the CG or other authorities even if you can't hear them calling back.

Basic Procedures

Basic procedures for properly operating your VHF radio are really very simple. According to guidelines suggested by the Coast Guard,

first, make sure you are on the correct channel and at the power level appropriate for the distance you wish to broadcast.

Adjust the squelch control as low as possible without hearing static or "white noise".Push the button on the microphone to transmit (send).

Speak in a normal voice into the microphone.

When finished, take your finger off the button to hear the other person.

Always Monitor Channel 16

The primary channel used for contacting or hailing another is channel 16 and this channel should always be monitored. It is specifically for distress and hailing (contacting)other boats orshore stations.In high radio traffic areas, channel 9 is often used as an alternate to 16 and has been so designated for communications between pleasure boats and shore stations.

However – if you operate your boat in an area where you occasionally hear the Coast Guard, understand thatdepending on your location, safety and information messages aren’t always transmitted on channel 9.Channel 16 is your best bet for all initial radio traffic and again, should always be monitored when your radio is on.

Once you’ve contacted the boat or facility with whom you want to communicate with on channel 16 or 9, ask them to “Meet you” or change to another appropriate channel such as 68, 69, 71, 72, or 78A. These are non-commercial channels. In most areas, channels 68 and 72 are the most commonly used by recreationalboaters.

Standard For Non-Emergency

Again, as suggested by the Coast Guard, the standard procedure for a non-emergency call such as calling another vessel, marina, or restaurant to ask where to tie up for dinner, is as follows:

Call the vessel, marina or restaurant on channel 16 in the following manner.

Name of station being called, spoken three times.

The words "THIS IS", spoken once.

Name of your vessel spoken once.

The word "OVER".

Wait for the station being called to answer. Their answer should be in the same manner as your call.

Once answered you should suggest a specific working channel to carry on your conversation.

The word "OVER".

Wait for a reply or confirmation from the station being called, switch to the working channel and repeat the process.

When done speaking and leaving a specific channel use the word " OUT" at the end.

An Example of a Non-Emergency Call is —

Calling Station: "Scorpion Bay Marina, Scorpion Bay Marina, Scorpion Bay Marina, THIS IS sailing vessel Gone With The Wind hailing you on channel 16. OVER."

Responding Station: "Gone With The Wind, Gone With The Wind, Gone With The Wind, This is Scorpion Bay Marina. OVER."

Calling Station: "Please switch and listen onchannel 68. OVER."

Responding Station: "Switching to channel 68, OUT."

Keep Conversations Short

You would then switch to channel 68 and hail Scorpion Bay Marina using the same procedure and conduct your business. All conversations, whether on a hailing channel or a working channel, should be kept short and to the point, no more than three to five minutes.

If you’re trying to contact a bridge operator or the bridge of a larger commercial boat such as a tug or freighter transiting San Diego Harbor or the like, use channel 13 for bridge-to-bridge communications. Should the need arise for you to contact the Coast Guard on channel 16, they’ll likely ask you to switch and monitor channel 22A.

Radio Check

If you’re in an area served by Sea Tow or TowboatUS, you can go to channel 68 and if they are monitoring, obtain a radio check with them. Another way to check is by simply keying the mic and looking at the amp meter on the face of the VHF radio to see if you’re broadcasting. Yet another is to check on the lowest power setting to a nearby hand-held, acknowledging the transmission on the hand help to check the strength of reception. And finally, another good way to check if your radio is receiving is to check the local weather channel on one of the 10 channels available in your area. But however you choose to do your radio check, do not broadcast it on channel 16 as it is a needless and obtrusive invasion of the network’s primary hailing and emergency channel.

VHF Is For Exchanging Operational Info

It’s important to remember that the VHF is for the exchange of operational information. Examples would be navigational or weather information – even where to meet for lunch – briefly. “Regular” conversations about last night’s party or discussions about general day-to-day events are inappropriate. Some channels, such as 70 (Used for Digital Selective Calling [DSC]), are restricted and can't be used for voice communications.DSC is another article for later – but basically, it is a semi-automated method of establishing a radiocall that has been designated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO)as an international standard for establishing VHF, MF and HFradio calls. It has also been designated as part of the Global Maritime Distress and SafetySystem (GMDSS).

DSC will eventually replace aural watches on distress frequencies and used to announce routine and urgent maritime safety information broadcasts.The system allows mariners to instantly send a distress call withGPS position (when connected to the transceiver) to the US Coast Guard and other vessels within range of the transmission, as well as initiate or receive distress, urgency, safety routine, POS Request, POS Send and Group calls to or from another vessel equipped with a DSCtransceiver.

Everyone Can Hear You

Whatever type of conversation you’re having, remember no one else within the range of your broadcast can transmit on that channel while you're talking. So keep conversations brief – no more than three to five minutes or so. And if communicating with another boat close by, switch to low power. (All fixed-mount and handheld VHF radios have low-power settings, which limit the broadcast range and the number of other boaters you may be blocking because of your transmission.)It’s also important to remember that everyone with a VHF radio can hear you.

Think of VHF communication as the quickest and easiest method of communication available to recreational boaters on the water.But, its public, everyone uses and can hear it and everyone benefits from it. However, it can easily be abused, become clogged with overuse and unpleasant due to others being rude or just unknowledgeable about proper etiquette and procedures. Follow these basic proper VHF protocols, and everyone will be in for a better boating experience — and a safer one, too.


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