Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Are VHF Radios Necessary?

February 1, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 


vhf 1

You have a smart phone containing marvelous technology that does everything but make coffee. Since one of its more basic features is making phone calls, is there any reason for a boater to have a single function, very high frequency (VHF) radio as well? Yes!

Veteran mariners recommend a VHF as your primary tool for communication on the water, especially in emergencies. Smart phones suffer from limitations of battery life, become useless when unable to connect to a cell source or charging source, and generally fail to function when wet.

A VHF has an effective range of 10 to 15 nautical miles, is more rugged, resistant to water, and usually derives its power from your boat’s charging system and battery. Furthermore, it is the only source of voice communication that is monitored 24/7 by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), bay constables, harbormasters, local marine law enforcement, and by other boaters.

Many boats already have a VHF but if you’re inclined to install one, doing so requires skills such as soldering, coaxial cable splicing, and direct current wiring. If you lack proficiency, I recommend a professional installation. Ask your marine supply store or electronics retailer what type and features of both a VHF and a properly matched antenna are best for your boating needs. One observation: Some boaters like to angle their antennas in a rakish way. While it does look cool, it cuts antenna efficiency in half.

I recommend that all boaters have VHF radios with two-channel-scanning. This allows you to bounce back and forth from the hailing frequency to the emergency frequency channel 16. The emergency channel is for situations where a vessel or person/persons are in immediate danger or where conditions could deteriorate rapidly. To summon the USCG, you key the microphone and say, “Coast Guard, this is ______ calling on 16.” As all calls on 16 are recorded, do not wait for a response before stating your situation.

Use the word “Mayday” three times when a dangerous situation is occurring, such as a fire on the boat or someone overboard. Although an emergency response may already be underway, repeat your call for assistance every 30 seconds until you get an acknowledgement. The operator may prompt you for additional information or advise you as to what action to take. If you cannot provide your exact location, the operator may ask you to do a “long count” or count by numbers forward on channel 16 until technology can pinpoint your location.

If the danger isn’t imminent but conditions are worsening, state “Pan-Pan” (pronounced pahn-pahn) three times before describing your safety concerns. If you’re not in danger but spot hazards to navigation or worsening weather, say “Securite” (pronounced saycuritay) three times before describing a potential peril (such as a waterspout spotted in the distance).

Boaters hearing any of the above transmissions should stay off the radio and monitor the situation unless you are in the vicinity and in a position to help.

In addition to emergency channel 16, VHFs have three weather channels (WX1, WX2, WX3) and channels nine, 22A (22 Alpha),68, 69, 71, 72, and 78A (78 Alpha) — the only ones appropriate for non-commercial and non-emergency ship-to-ship communications.

I always leave my VHF radio on and occasionally do a radio check by transmitting, “Any boat, radio check zero nine with location.” I always get a response and repay the courtesy when I hear others requesting a check. One plus of leaving a VHF on is that the heat generated by the unit will evaporate any moisture in the unit.

The WX channels provide continuous marine weather updates and tide information as well as weather alerts. Listen to whichever weather station is nearest your location. Channel nine is a hailing frequency used by boaters for a few moments to establish another channel on which to talk. An example of “hailing” would go something like, “Wave Dancer this is Sea Breeze on zero nine”… “This is Wave Dancer, over”… “Wave Dancer, switch to six nine”… “Roger, switching to six nine.” Translation: the two boaters will reestablish communication on channel 69.

All radio communications should be as brief as possible to avoid stepping on or blocking other radio transmissions. Speak clearly and avoid using the phonetic alphabet except when necessary; it sounds very professional, but it lengthens radio traffic. When two boats in radio contact are in sight of each other, they should lower their transmit power to one watt or chat via cell phone.

Keep young children off the radio and don’t let anyone aboard abuse it or use it for their own amusement. I’ve heard squeaky toys, rock-and-roll music, and even dogs barking (apparently in response to the squeaky toys), as well as foul language. On one occasion, I heard two skippers discussing barbeque recipes on channel nine!

By Paul Knieste

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is an R.N. in psychiatry and a professional photographer. He is an avid boater and fisherman in the waters of East Rockaway Inlet and Montauk Point, and loves cooking. Contact him at

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