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HSH Yacht Articles

VHF Radio


Jeremy R. Hood

I have to admit that I don't always monitor the VHF radio as I am supposed to. Leaving it on at night is often disturbing to the off-watch crew and on many boats where the radio is below at the navigation station it cannot be heard in the cockpit unless it is set to loud and even then it is often difficult to hear clearly. But that said, I recognize that the VHF radio is perhaps the most important piece of safety equipment aboard a boat for with the radio you can get information to aid navigation and obtain assistance in the case of emergencies. Crossing the Atlantic last year we saw several sailboats in the middle of the ocean and spoke to several on the VHF radio: later though we encountered problems and nearing Galveston at the end of our journey we tried to call on the radio and were unable to obtain a response. Only then did we realize that we had some problems. If we had needed the radio in an emergency I am not sure that it would have worked!

Do you know how you can obtain information regarding your position using your VHF radio or that there are three different types of distress message that can be used? I have heard all three distress signals used appropriately in the course of an afternoon sail on Galveston Bay; a mayday was transmitted from a sinking vessel off Galveston, two persons were seen swimming in the Houston Ship Channel resulting in the Coast Guard transmitting a pan-pan signal and a propane barge leaving the jetties transmitted a security signal. But in order to obtain help your radio must work properly!

Just because the you can turn on the VHF and hear radio traffic does not mean that others can hear you when you transmit. The radio antenna can be in pretty poor shape and still allow signals to be received, though when you try and transmit, any poor connections will cause a severe loss of signal strength. So, if your radio is to be your best piece of safety equipment you need to know that it is working correctly. Firstly, a visual inspection of all cable connections will show any obviously poor or corroded junctions. Check particularly any connections at the antenna itself as these are exposed to the elements and any junction near the mast which may have become corroded. Next step is to perform a radio check. You are not allowed to call the Coast Guard on channel 16 for a radio check so the best way is to arrange with a friend for you to each do a radio check. Transmit to each other over several miles distance on both low and high power levels and report the quality of the transmission. If it is broken or suffers from static then the transmitting radio or its antenna are suspect. If you can hear on high power only at a short distance then again a poor antenna is the most likely cause.

But your VHF radio will be of use on many other occasions than in an emergency. Near home you will be able to call friends or talk with a marina prior to arrival. When chartering in the Caribbean you may be surprised to find that the VHF radio can be used for reserving tables at dinner, ordering parts for your boat or even booking an appointment with a hair stylist (its true you can do this in English Harbour, Antigua - at least you could when I was there last). Should you venture away from land your VHF radio can be used to pass the time of day with ships or other sailboats travelling near by. On my Atlantic crossing last year we spoke with a number of other sailboats from a 65 foot luxury yacht to the four young Germans on a catamaran desperately trying to catch a faster boat having a male skipper and five female crew!

Unless you use the radio frequently, getting on the mike can be a little daunting so it pays to listen and get used to the protocol that is normally followed. Normally a call will begin on channel 16 (the distress, safety and calling channel - see sidebar). If I am calling my friend Jim on his Ericson Darcy Marie I will listen in on channel 16 to make sure there is no traffic using the channel and then transmit a short message as follows:

Darcy Marie, Darcy Marie, this is Melos, Melos

A call should officially include the name of your vessel and be followed by your FCC callsign though often in practice this is omitted. Once my friend Jim hears my call he should reply on channel 16 suggesting another channel for us to communicate on. A typical reply would be:

Melos, this is Darcy Marie, Channel 68

I will acknowledge:

Darcy Marie, Channel 68

and we will both switch to channel 68 and if no one is using that channel we can communicate as necessary. If the channel is being used we will turn back to channel 16, reestablish contact and another working channel will be suggested. When carrying on a conversation on a working channel it is worth remembering that FCC regulations do not allow chit-chat but only communications concerning the movement of vessels, obtaining supplies services, and, in general, anything else that pertains to the needs and operation of the vessel (Maritime Radio Users Handbook 1989).

If your normal methods of navigation have failed and you do not know your position it is possible to obtain a bearing line from a shore based station such as the Coast Guard or a Coast Radio Station but this should only be requested if all other means of fixing your position have been eliminated. A shore station can use their directional antennas to calculate a bearing of your vessel. Plotting this on a chart and, here in the Gulf of Mexico, crossing this position line with a depth contour (provided by your depth sounder) can give you a reasonably accurate fix and hence enable you to calculate a course home.

In an emergency you may need to send a distress message. The three different types of emergency signal in order of radio priority are:

MAYDAY Used when your vessel or life is in grave and imminent danger and immediate assistance is required. When a mayday is heard on the radio no other messages may be transmitted on that channel unless they are concerned with offering assistance until the mayday situation has ended.

PAN-PAN This is an URGENCY signal used to request assistance in circumstances where the situation is not quite as severe as a MAYDAY situation and though assistance is required it is not required immediately. Typical uses of a PAN-PAN would include non life-threatening medical emergencies and a vessel holed where you were managing to contain the intake of water. PAN-PAN signals take only less priority than MAYDAY signals

SECURITY SECURITY signals are often, though not always, transmitted by Coast Guard or Coast Radio Stations and they relate to navigational dangers. Typical messages may include information relating to channel buoys that are off-station or navigational lights that have failed. Often SECURITY messages will be transmitted on a working channel (the Coast Guard uses 22A) after an announcement on Channel 16

All emergency signals should be transmitted in a standard internationally recognized format (see sidebar) so whether you are sailing in Galveston Bay or the South China Seas your message will be understood by as many listeners as possible. In order to help you remember this format and to aid your crew should they have to transmit an emergency signal it is a good idea to have a laminated card near the radio giving the procedure with the name and details of your vessel already completed.

Knowing your radio is operating correctly and being aware of the types of assistance you can get will make your boating more relaxing and enjoyable. So make sure you have your FCC licenses (for the boat and the operator) and then practice using the radio so that it becomes familiar. And if you see me out on the water, give me a call!

Sidebar 1


Select Channel 16, Select High Power, Press key on mike and transmit:


  2. This is ___________________ (Give name of vessel three times)


  4. _________________________ (Give name of vessel once)

  5. My position is _____________ (Give latitude and longitude or bearing and distance to a well known landmark or in any terms which will assist a responding station in locating the vessel in distress)

  6. _________________________ (Give nature of distress)

  7. _________________________ (Kind of assistance required)

  8. _________________________ (Other information which may help in the rescue such as number of persons on board, details of injuries if any and a description of the vessel which may help in finding it)

  9. Over

A distress message may be transmitted on any frequency though it is normally best to transmit first on VHF channel 16. If no response is received try other channels.

*The format is identical for sending a pan-pan or security signal. Just use the appropriate words

(Typing out the above on a small card, adding the name and description of your vessel and then placing the laminated card next to your radio may help you or your crew remember the correct procedure in times of crisis)

Sidebar 2


(channels not mentioned are reserved for commercial shipping or port operations)

Channel # Use
6 Intership safety. Required on all VHF radiow. Used by Coast Guard in search & rescue.
9 Commercial and non-commercial intership and ship-to-coast
12 Port operations: this is a traffic advisory channel
13 Navigational: ships bridge to ships bridge. On recreational vessels this channel is used to listen in to determine the intentions of large vessels and to communicate with them (such as with tug boat captains on the I.C.W.). Also used for communicating with bridges and locks
14 Same as channel 12
15 Receive only channel used for broadcast of environmental information (such as weather)
16 DISTRESS, SAFETY and CALLING channel. Not to be used as a working channel.
20 Same as channel 12
24 Public correspondence channel. Used to communicate with coast radio stations (and hence make phone calls)
25 same as 24
26 same as 24
27 same as 24
28 same as 24
65A same as 12
69 same as 68
71 same as 68
72 same as 68 but intership only
73 same as 12
74 same as 12
78A same as 68
84 same as 24
85 same as 24
86 same as 24
87 same as 24
WX1-WX3   NOAA weather broadcasts (receive only)

* This list covers only those channels allocated for use in U.S. waters. Channels not followed with the letter A (as in 22A) are also international channels and may have different uses away from the U.S. Full information may be obtained from the Maritime Radio Users Handbook though readers should note that though information regarding VHF radio is correct, the book also gives details on SSB channels which have changed since its publication

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