VHF Radio: Usage and Etiquette - SailNet Community
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VHF Radio: Usage and Etiquette

Question: Which is the correct way to hail another vessel by VHF radio?

  1. "How bout'cha Rainbow Chaser?"
  2. "Hey Bob! Gotch yer big old satellite ears on?"
  3. "Second Wind hey Second Wind yoo hoo you out there?"
  4. None of the above.

In our sailing we've found that for each new area we cruise there always seems to be a whole new batch of what we call VHF radio speak. The above is just a sample of the talk we pick up. (We hope your answer was D.)

If you've had basic instruction on VHF operation, you know that the correct hailing procedure is to state one to three times in succession the name of the boat or station you're calling, followed by the name of your boat, once, then your call sign and "over."

"Osprey, Osprey, Osprey this is Safari, over.."

Any additional words are unnecessary and wrong. Once you've made contact with your party, you should switch to a working channel and clear channel 16.

You're actually only required by the Coast Guard to carry a VHF if your boat is 65-1/2 feet or larger. But a VHF radio is obviously important safety gear to have aboard. It's your best source for weather bulletins and marine advisories, and it's crucial for communicating with other boats, commercial vessels, and bridge tenders, for example. It's also your best bet for getting help, should you have an emergency, such as a mechanical breakdown or a medical crisis. It can also be a way to obtain navigational clarification if you're unfamiliar with a particular water.

Sometimes the amount of traffic on channel 16, the hailing and distress channel, can be very tiresome. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to think that every time they step on their boat they need to ask for a radio check. A radio check is rarely needed—perhaps after installing a new system, for example—and should certainly not be done on channel 16.

In New England, New York, and northern New Jersey, VHF traffic is so busy that boaters have been instructed to use channel 9 as the hailing channel in order to leave open channel 16 for emergency use only. But in this practice, VHFs need to be the scanning type, covering both channels, and still a sailor could miss a transmission on one channel if the other were being used at the same time. We're not sure how we feel about using different channels for hailing and emergencies, but it's one way of dealing with overcrowding and inconsiderate use. Wherever we cruise, we hear the Coast Guard having to break in to educate and reprimand boaters.

"Channel 16 is for hailing and distress purposes only. Please shift your idle traffic to a working channel," is a call often put out by the Coast Guard. If boaters were to follow the guidelines for proper usage (see the extra on VHF channels), a separate hailing frequency might be unnecessary.

Onboard guests should be instructed on proper use of the VHF. You never know when something might happen that could leave you unable to take charge. For this contingency, post a brief list of instructions, including proper channels to use, next to the radio.

The name you choose for your boat should be easily understood in radio transmissions. This is an aspect often overlooked in the naming process. If you choose an impossible mouthful of ancient Indian words unfamiliar to all but an anthropologist, watch out. You could spend the rest of your days on the water repeating that name to the person at the other end of the transmission trying to figure out what you're saying. OK, it's nice to be original, but in the long run it's more important to be understood.

The VHF has often been a source of entertainment on board Safari—from the listening end, that is. One radio transmission that really sticks in my mind happened just off a popular summer port in Maine.

Now, in your best Boston-Kennedy accent, say the following out loud: "Baa Haabaa Haabaa Maastaa, Baa Haabaa Haabaa Maastaa, Baa Haabaa Haabaa Maastaa.."

You just called the Bar Harbor harbormaster.

Another time we heard someone call the Coast Guard to report that they had found a bail of marijuana floating off Key West. The person asked the Coast Guard if he should take it on board and deliver it to them ashore. Right after a number of small, high-pitched and thinly disguised voices pitched in, "Bring it to me I'll take it "

Because we live on the boat, the VHF represents a lifeline to others as well as valuable safety equipment, so we're probably more sensitive to its proper use. All the cruisers we know take VHF usage seriously. Unfortunately there are some who get on the radio, tying up the frequencies with babble. Some have keyed the microphone to their favorite song playing on a top-10-hits radio station. Consider this and other foolish misuse of the VHF when an important weather bulletin goes missed or a mayday is never heard.

"Safari out."

VHF Radio Channels and Uses

Most VHF-radio manufacturers tout an impressive number of channels, but a sailor needs to be only concerned with a few. In fact, legally we're not permitted to use many of the channels. The table below lists the important channels and what you need to know about them.

Channel Usage Comments
16 Safety and hailing Emergency mayday calls Monitor ch.16 at all times. Hail other vessels on 16, then switch to a working channel. Emergency calls are always made on ch.16
22a U.S. Coast Guard This is the Coast Guard operations channel. If you need to speak to the Coast Guard and it's not an emergency, you'll probably be asked to switch to 22a.
13 Navigation and piloting Locks and drawbridges on the ICW. (Florida and South Carolina bridges on ch 9.) Commercial ship-to-ship. Good channel to monitor (along with 16) when entering or exiting a busy commercial port.
9, 68, 69, 71, 72, 78 Working channels for boaters General-use working channels for boat-to-boat and boat-to-shore communication. After establishing contact on 16, switch to one of these frequencies. Channel 9 is used for hailing in New England, northern New Jersey, New York, and for bridges in South Carolina and Florida.
24-28, 84 and 7 Marine telephone These are Maritel channels for marine telephone use. For more info call Maritel at 1-888-Maritel

VHF Tips and Procedures

Radio-use tips

  • Always listen before you start transmitting to ascertain a clear channel. If others are talking, wait until they're finished. Everyone will appreciate your courtesy.

  • Before calling another vessel on a hailing frequency, ensure in advance that you have a clear working channel available to switch to. Checking ahead can reduce congestion on the few working channels available.

  • After you've made contact, transmit with the minimum power or use the low-power setting.

  • Be sure to depress the button on the microphone before you start to speak. It's common for transmissions to be cut off at the beginning because the sender has started speaking too soon.

  • Remember that the only legal channels that boaters can use to converse among themselves are: 9, 16, 68, 69, 71, 72, and 78. All other channels are designated for other uses.

Procedure for hailing another vessel

Use Channel 16 to hail another vessel, but be brief. (Use channel 9 in New England, northern New Jersey, and New York.)

After you establish contact, switch to a working channel.

Example of a proper hail and response:

"Blue Goose, Blue Goose, Blue Goose, this is Safari, over."

"Safari, this is Blue Goose, over."

"Blue Goose, can you switch to channel 68? Over."

"Roger, 68. Over."

Sending a distress call

You may only have a few seconds to send a distress call. Here's the procedure to follow.

Transmit in this order:

  1. Tune your VHF to channel 16.
  2. Repeat the word "MAYDAY," three times.
  3. "This is (name of boat )." Repeat boat name three times.
  4. Give position by latitude and longitude or by bearing and distance to a well-known landmark or navigational aid, or in any terms that will assist a responding station in locating the vessel in distress. Include any information, such as, vessel course, speed, and destination.
  5. Indicate the nature of distress (sinking, fire, etc.).
  6. Indicate the kind of assistance desired.
  7. Describe your boat, such as, size, rig type, color and tell the number of persons aboard.
  8. End with "over."

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