VHF 101 - Demystifying the Marine Radio

The marine VHF (very high frequency) radio is a valuable tool for communicating with other vessels, hailing for help, obtaining weather information and monitoring pertinent local marine updates. It isn't, however, as informal as a citizens band (CB) radio and certain protocols for use and operation should be observed.

VHF marine frequencies are shared by commercial vessels, law enforcement, recreational boaters and the Coast Guard. The use and operation might seem a bit intimidating at first, but isn't difficult once understood. There are four basic points to consider for proper operation: hailing, communicating, frequency selection, and obtaining weather reports.

Each of the 88 numbered channels have a specific function and are assigned to the specific uses mentioned above. The most important is channel 16, used for hailing, emergency calls, and announcements by the Coast Guard. The proper procedure for hailing another vessel is by keying the mike, saying the other vessel name three times, then your vessel name once or twice. For example, "Fireball, Fireball, Fireball, this is Tiki, Tiki, over." Remember, do not begin speaking until you have keyed the mike or your transmission will be cut off. It is a good practice to wait one second after keying the mike to begin speaking to ensure your transmission goes through properly.

Contact is recognized and an operating channel suggested as follows, "Tiki, Fireball, go to six eight, over." It is important to switch to an operating frequency and not chit-chat on channel 16. It is good practice to acknowledge the channel prior to switching, "Tiki switching six eight, over."

For recreational boaters the working channels are: 09, 68, 69, 71, 72, and 78. Once on the operating frequency, make the communication exchange short and precise, freeing the frequency for other users.

An emergency call is hailed on channel 16 by saying "May-day, May-day, May-day" followed by "this is boat-boat name, boat-name." A May-day is used for a medical emergency or if in immediate danger and in need of assistance. If the Coast Guard hears your hail, they will respond. If not, other vessels within range of the hail are required to lend assistance

If you are in a predicament that is less than life threatening but could escalate, then you hail "Pan-pan, Pan-pan." [pronounced "pon"] This is an advisory call that puts the Coast Guard on notice, if for example you are taking on water but the bilge pump is keeping up.

Finally, a "See-cur-i-tay" as an announcement for mariners to keep a heads up for any condition that might impede navigation or used to inform of another vessel in distress. These will typically be broadcast by the Coast Guard.

Another important channel is 13, used by commercial vessels for communicating boat to boat (bridge to bridge). If you happen to find yourself in the middle of the deep water channel, engine dead and a large commercial vessel approaching, this is the channel to hail the watch officer on that large mass of steel bearing down on you.

Channels 11, 12 and 14 are used by Vessel Traffic Service in selected busy commercial shipping areas. VTS is the control tower of sorts, directing commercial traffic into and out of these waters. Monitoring VTS (if available) lets you know if a large container ship, for example, is inbound and headed your direction. This is particularly useful in low visibility conditions

Lastly, the National Weather Service broadcasts current observations and forecasts on 7 VHF frequencies dedicated to weather, 24 hours a day. Coastal and inland water area broadcasts will include wind and wave conditions with potential hazards to small crafts.

The broadcasts are updated periodically, and each channel is specific to an area. The area of coverage is indicated at the beginning of the broadcast, so listen for the area most pertinent to your location. Once the recording begins to loop its time to check a different channel.

The marine VHF is a valuable tool on the water. Follow these simple operating guidelines to plan your day, hear weather info, and hook up with boating friends. Boat safe and have fun.

Jonathan Bloom is a USCG licensed Master and ASA certified sailing instructor. He can be reached via www.BayDeltaFun.com

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