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How to Use a VHF Radio on Your Watercraft - Boat Repair

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Like any other tool on board your boat, there are right ways and wrong ways to use your VHF (Very High Frequency) Marine Radio. Here are some useful tips:

1. You are required to be monitoring VHF Channel 16 at all times. This channel is for emergency, distress, safety, and initial vessel contact messages only. You can usually set a 'dual watch' function on the VHF radio if you want to be monitoring another channel, or invest in two VHF radios for your vessel. If you receive a distress call, record it along with your boat's position and the time, and be prepared to give help if needed.

There are three international safety and distress calls that you need to be aware of:

Mayday calls - Issue a Mayday call if your vessel 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. If you make a Mayday call, wait for a response and if there is none after 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 is expected to be silent. If the Coast Guard asks for help from vessels in the area, this is an exception. Another exception is if you hear a Mayday call and after a two minute waiting period there has been no response from the Coast Guard, and the Mayday transmission is repeated without response, then you are required to perform a Mayday relay. 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 see something floating in the water that could possibly endanger boats in the area, it is expected that you put out a Securité call. By being a helpful member of the boating community and reporting major navigational hazards, you could save someone a costly repair or even protect the safety of their passengers.

Pan-Pan calls - The last of the signals for the VHF is a Pan-Pan call. This is used when your vessel, yourself, or a passenger is in trouble but not in serious danger. An example of when to use this call would be if you have had an accident of some type that disables your boat but you are not taking on water (not in danger of sinking) and there are no injuries. Pan-Pan is a request for assistance in a situation that is not life threatening.

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. But if you are in the vicinity of the request for assistance, you can head towards the boat that is in trouble and 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 if necessary.

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

3. Be considerate of other boaters and do not treat your VHF radio like a toy. 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.

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

  • Channel 9 is 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.

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 and clearly. Be polite and brief. Use the phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie...) to spell out important information, and make sure to confirm that you have received a message.

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 competently.

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