How to Use a VHF Radio – Boat Repair

This may seem like an unnecessary read for many experienced boat users however, for those of you who are interested or need a lesson, please continue. As w/ any other tool on board your vessel, there are wrong ways & right ways to use your VHF (Very High Frequency) Marine Radio. Here are some useful tips:

1. You’re required to be monitoring VHF Channel 16 at all times! This channel is for emergency, distress, safety, & initial vessel contact messages only. You can usually set a ‘dual watch’ function on the VHF radio if you want to monitor another channel or have 2 VHF radios for your boat. If you receive a distress call, please record it along with your boat’s position & the exact time. Be prepared to give help if needed.

There are 3 international safety & distress calls that you MUST KNOW:

Mayday calls -“Mayday, Mayday”, yes this is real, it is serious & is only to be used in the event there is a very real emergency. Issue a Mayday call if your watercraft is sinking, on fire, or if someone on board is seriously injured or ill. Mayday calls are only for situations which “there is immediate risk of loss of property or life” so do not abuse this distress call for any other reason. Doing so would be like calling 911 for nothing. It is taken very seriously and can be a waste of valuable resources if misused. If you make a Mayday call, wait for a response & if you don’t receive an answer w/ in a minute or so, repeat the entire Mayday. If there is still no response, you may need to use flares or other distress signals to get help.

Once a Mayday call goes out, everyone other than the distressed vessel and the Coast Guard responder handling the call must remain silent. If the Coast Guard asks for help from vessels in the area, this is what is referred to as an exception. Next exception is if you hear a Mayday call & after a 2minute waiting period there has been no response from the Coast Guard, & the Mayday transmission is repeated without response, then you are required to perform a Mayday response. You can also relay a Mayday call if you have spotted a vessel in serious danger or have been asked by the boat’s operator to call a Mayday relay.

Securité calls – In Florida, Securité is often used to report manatees that are swimming in the path of boats. Securité messages are for reporting navigational safety concerns to other boaters. If you spot anything floating in the water that could potentially endanger boats in the area, it is expected that you put out a Securité call. By being a helpful member of the boating community & reporting major navigational hazards, you could save someone a costly repair or even protect the safety of their passengers.

Pan-Pan calls – This is the last of the signals for a VHF. Use this when your boat, yourself, or a passenger is in trouble but not in serious danger. For example, if you have had an accident of some type that disables your boat but you are not taking on water and there are no injuries, then a Pan-Pan is appropriate.

If you hear a Pan-Pan call come over the VHF radio, treat it with silence on the channel just as you would a Mayday call. If you are in the vicinity of the request for assistance, please try to head towards the boat in trouble & see what you can do. You may need to get a line on the disabled vessel in order to bring it into safer waters then await further instructions from the Coast Guard.

2. Radio checks are usually not needed unless you have recently installed a new VHF radio or worked on your radio. Also, if have not used it in a while. Never use Channel 16 to perform a radio check. Stick to Channels 9, 68, 69, 71, 72, or 78A.

3. Be considerate of other boaters & do not treat your VHF radio like a toy, do not be that guy. Do not clutter important channels with chit-chat. It goes without saying but do not ever make a false Mayday call – such irresponsibility endangers others and you can be prosecuted with a $10,000 fine. Seriously, do not be that guy.

4. Aside from Channel 16, a few of the designated purposes of some other channels are:

  • Channel 9:designated by the FCC as the Recreational Calling Channel for use by non-commercial boaters. The protocol is to make contact on Channel 9, then move to one of the other recreational channels. Boaters who are monitoring Channel 9 are not required to monitor Channel 16.
  • Channels 68, 69, 71, 72, and 78A are also for use by recreational boaters. Once contact has been made on channel 9 or 16, switch to one of these channels.
  • Channel 13 is only to be used for commercial ship to ship (bridge to bridge) navigation or for use by bridges and locks.

5. Wait your turn and be patient while a channel is active. Breaking into an ongoing radio transmission is poor manner and could interfere with an emergency transmission. These radios are not toys, this is not GI-Joe in the backyard with your little brother. These channels serve purposes so again, don’t be that guy.

6. Do not use the phrase “over and out” at the end of a transmission, all that is necessary to end a VHF radio communication is “out”.

7. When transmitting on a VHF Radio, you must speak slowly & clearly. Be polite & brief. Use the phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie…)- if you don’t know it, learn it or tape it by your radio. This is used to spell out important information. Make sure to confirm that you have received a message when finished.

8. If you want to know more, consider attending a VHF Radio Operator’s Course. You can be awarded a SRC (Short Range Certificate) in just one day’s time while you learn everything you need to operate a VHF radio properly.


Author: coastiemarineblog

Marine Electrician, retired from the US Coast Guard. Over 14 years experience as a marine electrician and current owner of Coastie Marine Services.

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