U sing your VHF radio the right way is important for smooth communications—and it could save your life.
A VHF radio is one of the most basic but important safety items aboard your boat. But, when’s the last time you checked its performance?
Do you even know the proper way to do so? Just how savvy are you when it comes to the different channels that your radio has, and which is for what? The answers to these questions are important—in fact, your life could depend upon them. Yet few boaters take the time and effort to ensure that their VHF communications will go smoothly in an emergency.
The first piece to this puzzle is making sure your radio is DSC active. All VHF radios produced in the past decade have DSC ability, but you need to activate it.
When you press the DSC “panic button” on the VHF, the radio will automatically transmit your vessel’s information along with your exact latitude and longitude to the Coast Guard. Since DSC is digitally processed and uses narrow receiver bandwidth, it also boosts range over normal voice communications.
So, have you made your radio DSC active?—probably not.
The USCG reports that the vast majority of boaters out there haven’t taken the few simple steps to do so. Here it is, in a nutshell:
• If your radio doesn’t have a built-in GPS, interface your radio with your chart plotter. This requires no more than connecting a pair of plotter line-out wires with a pair of VHF line-in wires The color-coding differs from manufacturer to manufacturer, but a quick Google search will make identifying these wires a no-brainer.
• Register your vessel with BoatUS and get an MMSI number. This is free, and takes a matter of minutes. Just go to boatus.com/mmsi/.
• Plug the MMSI number you get from BoatUS into your VHF.
Follow this process, and in an hour or two, your radio will be DSC active. Now, you just need to know how to use it properly.
The first and most important rule is to respect the channel designations. Channel 16 is reserved for distress calls and contacting the Coast Guard in an emergency, period. Channel 13 is used by commercial ships, tugs, and the like for bridge-to-bridge communications, and is heavily trafficked.
Generally speaking, recreational boaters should completely avoid using it unless there’s a need to hail a commercial ship nearby. Channel 22A is used for safety broadcasts and Coast Guard communications (after hailing the USCG on channel 16, you’ll usually be asked to switch to 22A).
It’s fine to monitor these channels—in fact, you should always monitor 16 in case a nearby boat needs help—but don’t broadcast on them unless there’s an emergency.
Channels 68, 69, 71, 72, and 78A are considered non-commercial channels, and in most areas, 68 and 72 are commonly used by the recreational boating community. All of these channels are just fine for speaking with a buddy, although as a general rule of thumb VHF communications should be kept to a minimum.
Only one person can talk at a time, and dominating a channel to gab is considered poor form. When chatting with a friend who’s boat is close by (within a mile or two) you can mitigate this issue by switching over to low power.
Both fixed-mount and handheld VHFs have low power settings (commonly one watt, versus 25) which limit the range of your broadcast, also limiting the number of other boaters you may be “stepping on” (blocking from speaking) while you transmit.
Sometimes, you’ll try to use your radio to no avail. Problems with antennas, radio hardware, and wiring are rather common. To make sure everything is working properly you should do regular radio checks, but do them on a recreational communications channel.
Simply call requesting a radio check from any vessel, and wait for a reply. It’s helpful to give your location and ask for the location of anyone responding, so you’ll have some idea of the range your check is effective to.
You can also call for an automated radio check in some areas. On the Texas coast Sea Tow provides automated checks in Kemah, Galveston, Port Aransas, and Corpus Christi.
Simply ask for a radio check on channels 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, or 84 in these areas. The automated service will play back a recording of your transmission so you know how clear you sound is while speaking over the airwaves.
Another important thing to remember is that everyone within miles and miles can hear everything you say on the radio. You might find foul language and rude comments the norm, but it’s easy to offend a large number of people on the VHF.
This isn’t merely a matter of political correctness, but is more a matter of common courtesy. As a parent, hearing a flurry of inappropriate language while your five-year-old child is sitting next to you can be rather unsettling.
In the case of an emergency, your language should take on a very specific structure. The word “mayday” used to precede emergency communications, is reserved for life-threatening situations only. It should be repeated three times prior to stating your predicament. The word “pan-pan” is the appropriate one to use when you’re in a situation that isn’t life threatening at the moment, but could become life threatening.
After using the appropriate call word you should always state your vessel’s name, your latitude and longitude as read off the GPS or chart plotter, and the nature of your emergency. Speak slowly and clearly, and wait for a response from the Coast Guard.
Once they know the exact situation and location, be ready for some follow-up questions. They’re likely to ask about things like who’s onboard, their sex and age(s), and if everyone is in good health. This gives them some background information if a rescue operation commences. If you don’t get an answer from the Coast Guard, continue making the call. The authorities might hear you even if you can’t hear them, and if not, a nearby pleasure boater might be listening.
The bottom line? Familiarize yourself with operating your VHF, check to make sure it’s operating properly, and use it courteously and judiciously. Doing so not only makes a day of boating more pleasant for everyone on the water, it also makes it safer.
Email Lenny Rudow at [email protected]