VISAR – Communications

Life today is a constant cacophony of noise
and information. One of the great joys of boating is being able to get away
from it all and find some peace and quiet. Sadly, the responsible boater knows
that there is simply no escaping completely as there is a legal requirement for
all vessels underway to monitor the international maritime hailing and distress
frequency, VHF Ch. 16.

The never-ending babble that we here in the Caribbean endure on the VHF
is apparently exceptional. Visitors to the VISAR office from Europe are
astonished at just how much traffic fills the airwaves here. People often ask
how on earth we stand listening to 16 all day. The answer is that, after a
while, you don’t actually “hear” it – your ear becomes attuned and most of the
radio traffic is effectively white noise. You actively hear your own call sign
and the pro-words MayDay, Pan-Pan etc. The brain subconsciously picks up the
sound of a friend’s voice to which you may actively listen, or the distinctive
tone of a person in distress to which you respond quickly.

Sadly, because people find it difficult to “tune out” the chatter, or
their guests complain about the noise, there are too many boats that simply
don’t bother. Some vessel operators choose not to turn on the VHF at all,
unless they wish to contact another vessel or shore party; others monitor a
“private” channel that connects them with a shore station. This is hugely
detrimental to the safety of other water users, especially as long as VHF Ch.
16 remains the international maritime distress frequency (expected to continue
for many years beyond the International Maritime Organisation’s declaration
that this will cease in 2007.)

In recent years, the ever-increasing popularity and prevalence of the
cell phone has had the effect of slightly reducing the volume of traffic on the
VHF. This is, of course, a mixed blessing. From the vantage point of those who
have, as a part of their jobs, to monitor the VHF, some of the extraneous
transmissions have been eliminated, which makes life a tad easier.

On the flip side, more and more people are choosing not to bother with
the expense of a VHF Radio at all. Their cell phone works perfectly well, is
highly portable and multifunctional, thus saving “unnecessary” expenditure of
relatively expensive single-function equipment. This means that not only are
they effectively breaking the law (OK, so who ever is going to prosecute??),
but, more importantly, they are not in a position to hear calls for assistance
from someone who is in need of help.

The most telling issue is that if the boat owner/operator who doesn’t
have a VHF, but does possess a cell-phone, gets into trouble, when a call for
help is made it can only be heard by one person. There may be appropriate
assistance immediately available, but without a VHF broadcast letting “the
world and his wife” know of your distress, you may never get the help you need,
or get it too late.

The other negative aspect of cell phones has been the demise of
ship-to-shore operators, as the need for them has diminished. This has diluted
the 24/7 coverage of the area by stations other than the MRCCs.

Cell phones aren’t all bad, by any means. In sectors of the community
where traditionally operators don’t have VHF radios (until licensing
requirements and enforcement influence the matter), their ownership of a cell
phone means that if they get into distress they have a means to call for help.
Major bonus, particularly for SAR services which frequently have to try and
intuit the location of a casualty through careful questioning and research.

Please consider owning and using a VHF as it is supposed to be used –
not as a free telephone, but as a specialised piece of vital communications
equipment. By monitoring CH 16 it is entirely possible that you may be
instrumental in saving a life. That’s a really good reason, don’t you think?

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Graphics by Anouk Sylvestre

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