The Do’s and Don’ts of using a VHF Radio
June 9th, 2023 by team
by B.J. Porter (Contributing Editor)
VHF radio can be a chaotic and noisy place, and a few considerations for how to use it and an awareness of the rules (and laws!) make it much more useful for everyone. Even if you’re an old salt, a refresher before the new season is never a bad idea.
VHF Do’s and Don’ts
We’ve all heard the calls on a weekend – a couple of friends on Channel 16 jawing over their fishing catch or their weekend plans. It’s a friendly conversation, and harmless…except it’s on the hailing channel everyone is supposed to monitor. So everyone has to listen to it. Never mind that it’s kind of loud and annoying, but anyone with an actual emergency won’t be able to break in.
It may seem obvious if you’ve been on the water for a while, but a lot of new people take to the water every summer and they don’t always know the ropes. So a few things to do and to avoid:
- Don’t have long conversations on hailing channels. This is always Channel 16, but some harbors use other channels and you should avoid them except for initial calls.
- Do call for boats by name. You’re not calling for people. If you don’t know the name of the boat your friend is on, try them on a cell phone.
- Don’t let very young children go on the radio. Pre-teens and tweens can handle it if you are certain they understand VHF protocols and that it is a tool, not a toy.
- Speak slowly and clearly, holding the microphone in front of (but not touching!) your mouth.
- Don’t hold down the transmit button when you aren’t speaking. Pay attention to where your mikes and handsets are, so no one is sitting on one. It makes a horrible noise over the air.
- Never, ever joke about distress calls. Fake distress calls are a crime.
- Don’t use profanity. Children are often on boats with radios, and it is also illegal.
- Always listen on a channel for a few seconds before you talk, to make sure it’s not in use.
- Use the low power setting if you’re talking to a boat close to you.
- Don’t use things like police codes, CB lingo, or other “radio talk” you may have heard somewhere. They usually get it wrong on TV and in movies!
Calling and Channel Choices
The general pattern of a VHF conversation is:
- Hail your party.
- Hold a brief conversation if all that’s needed is a quick answer or piece of information, or
- Offer a channel option to switch two if you need more than a simple question and single, short answer.
- Switch to the side channel.
- Hold your conversation on the side channel for no more than five minutes.
Channel 16 is the universal hailing and emergency channel. Keep it clear except for hailing and emergencies, and there should be no conversations. You should always have your radio on Channel 16 while under way, though you can turn up the squelch to block the static.
Channel 9 is another popular hailing channel, but it is not an official emergency channel. Avoid conversations there, too.
Channel 13 is vessel bridge-to-bridge and used primarily by commercial shipping. You may use it to hail a commercial ship about navigation concerns if they don’t answer on 16.
Channels 68, 69, 71, and 72 are popular switch-to channels dedicated to pleasure use for longer conversations. Listen before use, especially on weekends, as local groups may use them for coordinating races or other on-the-water events.
You should always check local channel usage and reservations, as different harbors may use fixed channels for hailing, harbor services, or other purposes. Also refer to this guide from the FCC for channel usage.
Hailing and clarity
Although VHF is usually clear, radio clips the frequency range of the human voice, so it’s easy to make mistakes and mis-hear. There are guidelines on unambiguously hailing other boats and communicating as clearly as you can.
The format for a proper hail is the name of the boat you’re calling three times, followed by your boat name. If Spitfire is trying to reach Beagle, the call is:
“Beagle, Beagle, Beagle, this is Spitfire.”
Beagle’s reply is simply “Spitfire, Beagle.” And if Beagle didn’t catch the boat hailing her, she would reply “Vessel calling Beagle, this is Beagle.”
Numbers and Letters
If you haven’t memorized the NATO phonetic alphabet (or “radio alphabet”), print out a reference card and keep it near the radio. You will be asked to spell things, especially your boat name and call sign, and all spellings should be phonetic. Letters are easy to mis-hear.
Speak numbers with individual digits. For example, “217” should be stated as “two one seven,” not “two-seventeen” or “two-hundred and seventeen.” Use “niner” for nine, and try to make “three” a two syllable word.
Key and Special Words
There are a few phrases in common use that are better choices than what you might use in regular conversation. Again, this is for clarity in a sometimes hard to hear radio transmission.
Over – is an optional phrase, which means “I’m done with what I was saying.” You are not required to use it, and most do not unless a signal is really weak.
Out – “I am signing out of the conversation.”
Affirmative and Negative are more easily understood than “yes” and “no.”
Roger – “I understand and agree.”
Say again (all after *phrase) – “Please repeat what you said,” and (optionally) just everything after the last clear phrase.
Stand by/Standing By – “Please be silent but stay on this channel.” / “Acknowledgement of Stand By.”
Holding a Conversation
While you can hold a conversation on VHF, it doesn’t lend itself towards overlong discussions and shouldn’t be used for conversations longer than a few minutes.
Maritime VHF is for conversations specific to marine operations, boating, and safety. And it’s one speaker at a time – you can’t hear someone when you’re holding the transmit button. So a cell phone is a much better option for personal conversations if you have a signal.
Be familiar with emergency calling procedures. We’ve gone into this in some detail in prior posts, so we won’t revisit it in depth. Please see the linked article for DSC, Pan Pan and Securité calls.
If you have to make a Mayday call, follow this template. It’s not a bad idea to practice this with the radio off, even if it feels ridiculous, so it comes out smoothly.
- Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!
- This is (BoatName), (BoatName), (Boatname)
- Callsign (Your callsign, in the phonetic alphabet)
- Mayday (BoatName)
- My position is (give position as exactly as you can, coordinates are best)
- Briefly describe your boat and how many are on board
- Give the nature of your distress
- If you think you are sinking or you are abandoning ship, announce how much time you think you have before you have to leave.
- State “Over”
Wait at least a minute for a response, then try again.
Privacy (or the lack thereof)
Talking over the VHF is a bit like standing in a crowded room holding a conversation over a pair of bullhorns. Everyone can hear you, and you’re forcing your message on everyone in the same room, or in this case anyone monitoring the channel you’re using.
There is no privacy. Whatever you say is in the open, and even if you switch channels…nosy people can and will follow you! So if you don’t want everyone within twenty miles knowing your business, don’t put it out on the air!