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How to Use a VHF Radio

When sailing, you might need to communicate to other vessels. One tool that a sailors can use to communicate is a handheld VHF radio. A VHF radio broadcasts your message out to other boaters in the area listening to their radios. You can use VHF radios in emergencies or just to relay information. Knowing how to use one allows you to get your message out quickly, so you can concentrate on sailing.

VHF Etiquette

Think of a VHF radio as a direct connection to every other vessel in your line-ofsight and within your radio’s range. When you talk on it, every other vessel in the area hears what you’re saying. Most of the other sailors aren’t interested in hearing it, so keep any communication short and only use it when you have to. I.e. no one wants to hear a conversation about what color of underwear you’re wearing. The airways are limited and lots of users need to pass along information, so the less you use it, the more others can do what they need to. Keep your conversations short and to the point. Many countries require a license to use a VHF radio. One reason for the license is to keep the on-air conversations following specific protocols, which helps shape the communication and keep everything understandable. In some countries, like in Germany, laws allow recreational users to use VHF radios without requiring a license. Despite the lack of licensing, users must adhere to the established communication protocols.

VHF Radio Channels

To help prevent on-the-air choke holds of one channel, the VHF radio band is divided into different channels. You can usually select channels on your VHF radio by pushing up or down buttons. Each channel has a specific designation on who can use the channel, so before you begin talking make sure that you’re allowed to use that channel. The most important VHF channel is 16. The International Coast Guard says this about channel 16, “International Distress, Safety and Calling. Ships required to carry radio, Coast Guard, and most coast stations maintain a listening watch on this channel.” It’s used when you need to hail (call) another vessel or broadcast an emergency or safety situation. After contacting a vessel, except in an emergency, you must move off of channel 16 to leave it open for other users. You can also use channel 9 to hail other craft. When someone broadcasts an emergency on channel 16, don’t use it until resolved. Essentially, all communication starts on 16 or 9. Channels 68, 69 and 78A (plus 79A and 80A in the Great Lakes) are designated noncommercial channels. These are the channels that you use to carry on a conversation after you establish contact. When you’re hailing another vessel, that vessel will tell you which channel to switch to. It’s often one of these. When you’re hailed, you should suggest one of these channels to switch to.

Non Emergency Ship-to-Ship or Ship-to-Shore VHF Communication

One common use of VHF radios is to contact other vessels or contact shore-based stations, like a lock and dam system or a harbor master. You establish contact by hailing. A hail follows this protocol:

1. Say the name of Station you’re calling three times.

2. This is [vessel name].

3. OVER.

4. Contact replies (Step 1 to 2). States channel to switch to. OVER.

5. Repeat 1 to 2, ROGER [channel #].

6. OUT.

7. Switch. Wait for contact. Step 1 to 2, [communicate message], OVER.

8. End with OUT.

A conversation between two sailors might sound like this:

Sailor Leo: Explorer. Explorer. Explorer. This is Leo. Over.

Sailor John: Leo. Leo. Leo. This is John. Switch to 68. Over.

Sailor Leo: John. This is Leo. Roger 68. Out.

Sailor John: (Switches to 68): Leo. Leo. Leo. This is John on 68. Over.

Sailor Leo: (Switches to 68): John. John. John. This is Leo. I’m one mile out from the Split harbor. What’s your position? Over.

Sailor John: I’m two miles out from the Split harbor. Over.

Sailor Leo: We’ll wait for you at the Rogac Bay. Over.

Sailor John: See you there. Out.

Sailor Leo: Out.

Safety VHF Use

You can use a VHF radio to communicate important or unusual safety information to other sailors around you using a Securite call. Most often you’ll hear this call originating from the Coast Guard, but you might find a time to use it. One popular use among sailors is announcing tree trunk or whale dead. A Securite call follows this protocol:

1. Securite. Securite. Securite.

2. All Stations. All Stations. All Stations.

3. This is [say your vessel name 3 times].

4. Safety message concerning [location] to follow on channel [#].

5. Description of situation.

6. OUT.

7. Repeat on new channel with hazard.

It might sound like this:

Leo: Securite. Securite. Securite. All Stations. All Stations. All Stations. This is Leo.

Leo Leo. Safety message concerning Pigeon Point and Isle Royale to follow on

channel 9. Leo is a Jeanneau 45. Out. Leo (Switches to 9): Securite. Securite. Securite. All Stations. All Stations. All Stations. This is Leo. Leo Leo. Safety message concerning Pigeon Point and Isle Royale. Today at 7am has a body of a dead whale next of channel signal buoy of Pigeon Point. Out.

Emergency VHF Communication (Mayday, Pan Pan)

You use one of two different protocols to announce an emergency. For emergencies that immediately threaten life or vessel, call a Mayday. For emergencies where no life or vessel is threatened call a Pan Pan. It’s important to stay calm during an emergency call. Keep the message simple by relaying only the important information and repeat your message every 10 seconds until someone answers your call. Your handheld radio is low in the water; in rough water, the message might not transmit clearly.

Mayday Protocol:

1. Mayday. Mayday. Mayday.

2. This is [say vessel name 3 times].

3. At Position [say location].

4. State nature of emergency.

5. Type of assistance needed.

6. Number of people involved.

7. Vessel name and description [2 times].

8. OVER. Wait 10 sec. repeat.

A Mayday might sound like this:

Leo: Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. This is Leo. Leo. Leo. Bearing 35 degrees magnetic — distance about 1 mile from Terrace Point. Lost boat with victims in the water. Need rescue. Two adults. Leo is a Jeanneau 45 feet. The other sailboat is 18 feet and blue. Over.

Pan Pan Protocol:

1. Pan Pan. Pan Pan. Pan Pan.

2. All Stations. All Stations. All Stations.

3. Same as Mayday 2 to 7.

4. Resolved send “URGENCY ENDED.”

While it’s best to memorize the VHF protocols before use, it is nice to have a cheat sheet available for practice and training. Print the pdf out, cut out the two pages and laminate to a 3- by 5-inch index card. Use these cards during role-playing exercises until the participants have the protocols memorized.

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