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VHF 101

When it comes to communicating on a marine VHF radio, there are no "good buddies" and no "breaker 19s." Smokey and the Bandit may have made CB radio jargon hip for a time, but a marine VHF is definitely not a CB radio. It’s a serious piece of safety equipment whose use is regulated by the FCC and the U.S. Coast Guard. When used properly it provides a critical communication link to potential rescuers in an emergency and access to NOAA weather forecasts, navigation alerts, and notices to mariners. It can also be used to hail a bridge tender on the ICW, communicate with passing ships, and invite the crew of a neighboring boat in an anchorage to come over for some sundowners.

Also, only boats over 62 feet are required to carry a VHF, but it’s prudent to carry one on any boat. Carrying a cellphone is not a suitable alternative, as it has limitations in range and power that VHF radios do not. The Coast Guard will answer distress calls made on a cellphone but prefers to receive coastal distress calls via VHF.

This primer covers most VHF features and how to use them, proper distress-call technique, picking up weather forecasts, and navigating the VHF radio waves. But first you need to remember several things:

—VHF radios are not toys. Don’t clog important channels with idle chatter, and never, never make a false Mayday call. You are putting lives at risk, and you can be prosecuted.

—Always monitor channel 16. If you receive a distress call, record it and your position in your log, and be prepared to render assistance if at all possible.

—When sending a message, press the handset’s push-to-talk (PTT) button, and speak slowly and clearly into the microphone. Use the phonetic alphabet to spell out important information, and always confirm a received message.

—Don’t attempt to hail another user while the hailing channel is active. Breaking into an active radio transmission is bad VHF etiquette at best and could possibly interfere with an emergency transmission. When hailing another boat (on channel 9 or 16), establish contact and then quickly switch to an established working channel.

—Never use profanity, always transmit using minimum power, keep conversations as brief as possible, and remember that most VHF calls are audible to any radio in range that is monitoring your channel. So watch what you say; you never know who’s listening.

—When you go shopping for a VHF, make sure that it has the proper NMEA connections to allow it to interface easily with your GPS.

—Last but not least, never say "over and out" at the end of a transmission. "Over" means "over to you"; "out" means you are ending the transmission. When you’ve completed your conversation, just say "out." Same holds true for "roger, wilco." Nothing says VHF rookie like "roger, wilco" followed by "over and out."

The diagrams below an overview of the components of a VHF radio, explaining what the buttons are for, followed by clip-and-save instructions for the proper ways to use various channels and to make different distress calls. For your own good—as well as that of any guests on your boat—keep this story handy, near the helm if possible.


Jason Lee

This article originally appeared in the June 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.