Boating Life

How To: Use a VHF Radio

May 25, 2021
Ingman Marine
How To Guides
May 25, 2021
Ingman Marine
How To Guides

Boating is considered one of the most relaxing activities, and nothing compares to a quiet evening watching the sunset off the bow or a fun packed day with your friends on the water. However, the weather in Florida can change in the blink of an eye and having the tools to stay safe is crucial.

One of the most important things you can have on a boat is a VHF (very high frequency) radio. Boating and fishing should be as safe, as it is fun.

Why Have a VHF Radio on a Recreational Vessel?

Emergencies appear out of the blue, and this is one of the most important reasons why all recreational boats should consider having a VHF Radio on board. Unforeseen situations shouldn’t catch you unprepared.

Example Scenario:

Skiffs are a very popular model in Florida, and while these boats are rather small, they could still benefit from having a VHF Radio on board.

The miles of rivers in the middle of nowhere sound like a dream world for a skiff captain, but emergencies could quickly turn them into a less dreamy world. Getting lost in the middle of nowhere or sinking could become very real, very quickly. A VHF Radio could save you in such a situation.

Types of VHF Radios

There are two types of Marine VHF Radios: Marine Handheld Radios and Marine Fixed-mount Radios.

The hand-held VHF Radio is smaller and portable, taking its power from batteries. This Marine VHF Radio is useful even in case your boat’s battery dies or electrical system fails. It is also useful in the case your boat is sinking and you’re forced to abandon it.

A fixed-mount VHF Radio is installed permanently on your boats dashboard and takes its power from your boat’s electrical system. No electrical system, no radio.

How to Use a VHF Radio in 8 Easy Steps:

Below are steps and things to remember when beginning to use your VHF radio.

  1. Turn on the VHF unit. After doing that, you need to adjust the squelch by turning the knob until you hear static and then drawing back until the static has stopped.
  2. Performing a radio check is vital. This will ensure the proper functionality of your VHF Radio. **Be careful not to use channel 16 for testing purposes.**
  3. There are channels such as 68, 69, 71, 72, and 78A that can be used for testing purposes – these are considered ‘open’ channels.
  4. Set the radio to the one-watt power setting. Now, you should be able to key the microphone.
  5. Key the microphone and say the radio check lines. “Radio Check” should be said three times, immediately followed by your boat name and your location.
  6. Now, wait and listen for another Captain to confirm your Radio Check.
  7. When your check is confirmed switch to channel 16, as this is the channel the coast guard monitors and that in which any mayday should be called over.
  8. Channel 16 is for emergency use only. If you wish to contact another boater use one of the other open channels.

Performing a Radio Check

As mentioned above, channel 16 is not intended for testing purposes. You can perform a radio test on any of the other open channels (68, 69, 71, 72, 78A), as they are designed for conversational purposes. Turn the radio on (make sure it’s the one-watt power setting), key the microphone, and call radio check three times, followed by your boat name and location.

For example, “Radio check, radio check, radio check. This is Marina’s Boat in Gasparilla Marina”.

After this, wait for a reply. Proper etiquette states someone tuned into that channel will generally reply shortly to confirm they hear your test call.

Marine VHF Radio Channels

It is important to know and remember these channels to maintain proper channel etiquette and to not clog up the radio waves. This could prevent important calls from getting through.

  • 09 – This channel is for boater calling. It is used by both commercial and non-commercial boats.
  • 13 – This channel is used for Intership Navigation Safety (bridge-to-bridge). Ships that have under 20m in length have to keep a listening watch on this channel while being in US Waters.
  • 16 – This channel is used for International Distress, Safety and Calling (monitored by the Coast Guard)
  • 22A (also known as 1022) – This channel is used for Maritime Safety Information Broadcasts (that are typically announced on channel 16 also)
  • 68, 69 – These channels are used by non-commercial boats, VDSMS
  • 70 – Digital service calling (voice communications are not allowed)
  • 71 – This channel is used by non-commercial boats, VDSMS (VHF Digital Small Message Services)
  • 72 – This channel is used by non-commercial boats and inter-ship only, VDSMS (VHF Digital Small Message Services)
  • 78A – This channel is used by non-commercial boats

Radio Protocol and Etiquette

As seen above, each VHF Radio channel has a designated purpose. Channel 16 should not be used unless there is an emergency. Thus, there is no room for radio testing or casually holding a conversation here.

There are a few regulations when it comes to VHF Radio usage: transmitting music, using either obscene or objectionable language, or subversive transmissions are strictly forbidden. It’s important to also keep your Marine Handheld Radio away from the reach of children, as the airwaves are constantly monitored.

You can still communicate with another vessel if necessary. You can do this by calling their boat name either two, or three times, adding your boat name afterward, and finishing with “over”.

Example Conversation

Your initial call – “Seastar. Seastar. Marina’s Boat on channel 72. Over.”

Their response should sound like – “Marina’s Boat, this is Seastar. Switch Channel 68. Over.”

Your reply should sound like this – “Marina’s Boat, switching 68. Over.”

A conversation like this basically means that both boats will switch their radios to channel 68, which is used for hailing and normal conversation. If you want to terminate the conversation, you could either say “Marina’s Boat, returning to stand by channel (mention the channel number)” or “Marina’s Boat. Out.”. It is a good practice to not use “over and out” when using the radio, as these terms are conflicting.

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International Distress Signal - "MAYDAY"

The Mayday call should be used only for those situations in which either life or property is in immediate danger. This is an important remark since “Mayday” should not be used for situations such as running out of fuel.

Of course, if running out of fuel becomes life-threatening, as you’re in a channel and you have no possibility to anchor, then you should use the “Mayday” signal. In short, this signal means that all the rescue and search operations available act immediately. The situations where you should use “Mayday, mayday, mayday” followed by your boat name and last known location are:

  • Ship Sinking
  • Losing Someone Overboard
  • Ship Wreck

BONUS TIP: Digital Selective Calling

The Digital Selective Calling (DSC) is a feature that is available on all fixed-mount VHF Radios. By pushing just one button, a signal containing your location is sent to the Coast Guard. In order to properly use the DSC feature, you need to make sure that the radio is connected to GPS, be it internal or linked to a different GPS on the boat.

The Bottom Line

Safety is a must when boating. Even if the weather looks good, the waters can be unpredictable and rush you into situations where you might need help. A Marine Handheld Radio is easy to carry around and can become your ally in case of any unforeseen situation if you don’t have another Marine VHF Radio on your boat.

Cheers to a Sense of Comfort and Safety

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