The ABCs Of Using Your VHF Marine Radio

May 22, 2013

Leave it to those Hollywood movies to teach all us boaters a bad habit or two. When they've run out of gas and are running late for a wedding, the first response for actors on the big screen seems to be to grab the radio microphone and start shouting MAYDAY! But while that may be fine for dramatic effect, it's the last thing you should do in real life. More on that in a minute.

For now just understand that if there’s one piece of safety equipment on your boat that rivals a life jacket in terms of being valuable for you (and your guests) in an emergency, it’s your VHF marine radio (either handheld or fixed-mount).  When you’re out of cell phone service coverage (or the battery’s dead or you left it on your charger at home), your VHF radio can summon the help you need in the case of an accident. Certain frequencies, such as channels 9 and 16, are monitored by the Coast Guard (or other boating law enforcement agency) and, when used properly, a marine radio can be an effective way to communicate with other vessels, along with harbormasters and marinas, for various reasons. 

And it’s important to know and respect the appropriate etiquette for using a VHF radio to make sure your messages are clearly understood and a proper response can be put into effect. Here are some key points to remember when using your marine radio.

Know Where It Is

 Although recreational power boats under 65 feet in length are not required to have a marine radio on board, it’s really a good idea to have one whenever you go out. Fixed-mount radios are just that, fixed to the helm like your CD player. Handhelds can be stowed out of the way, but always know where it is. Emergencies can happen quickly, whether it’s aboard your boat or on another vessel. 

Monitor Channel 16

When your radio is on but not transmitting, keep it on Channel 16. You are required to come to the aid of other vessels and Channel 16 is used for hailing other boaters. You can switch to another agreed-upon channel after contact is made. This channel is also used for weather alerts and reports of hazards to navigation. 

Radio Checks

Rather than use "blind" radio checks, the current preferred methods for determining if your radio is working properly are to call another boat directly (by name) or contact a known shore station (marina, fueling station, etc.). Another idea is to tune to a weather frequency. Chances are that if you can hear the weather broadcast, your radio is working, and the antenna is likely sound.

Keep It Clean 

Don’t use bad language or broadcast anything besides clear, easy-to-understand requests or instructions. For that reason, make sure you supervise use by children and anyone not familiar with the rules.

Speak, Release, Wait

VHF radios work like walkie-talkies, not telephones. For that reason, only one person can talk at a time. You press the button, send your message (boat name, radio channel, location, and “over”), release the button and wait for a response. Remember that others may be trying to use the channel as well, so make sure you listen first and make sure they are finished before starting your transmission. 

Hooked On Phonetics

Because of the technology and the less-than-perfect conditions in which VHF radios are often used, remember that it’s often hard to understand numbers and certain letters. When stating numbers, say each number individually. If you’re at channel marker 316, say “three-one-six” instead of “three-sixteen.” Also, there’s a reason the phonetic alphabet has been around a long time. It works. Study up! Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliet, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu

Mayday Is The Last Resort

Don’t ever say “mayday” unless you have a real emergency that threatens someone’s life or puts property in immediate danger. Other boaters and the Coast Guard will converge on a mayday distress call, and you will not be popular if a child or crew member is goofing around with the radio. Mayday is a 911 call on the water. Make sure everyone on board knows the rules. If you do have a legitimate mayday call, say it three times, followed by your location and your situation.