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Know Your VHF Radio Etiquette

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The ocean is accessible to anyone brave enough to meet the challenge. That is my favorite thing about boating. My least favorite thing: improper vhf radio etiquette.

A VHF radio is a must-have on even the smallest of pleasure boats – more reliable than a cell phone and nowadays cheaper than one. If you ever truly need it in an emergency, the Coast Guard will be thankful if you at least sound like you know what you’re talking about. And other boaters will certainly take you more seriously.

Proper calls on the VHF Radio start with repeating the name of the boat you’re calling and the name of your own boat a full three times.

It’s long, and sometimes annoying, but it’s correct. “Arcturus, Arcturus, Arcturus, this is Sojourner, Sojourner, Sojourner, channel 1-6, over.” I like to repeat the channel as well, as many commercial craft monitor multiple channels and might not necessarily understand that it’s 16 you mean.

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When you’re done speaking into the mic, say “over.”

This is by far the simplest part of radio etiquette, and probably the most abused. It’s easy – just say it.

Use the NATO phonetic alphabet when speaking letters.

Here’s a useful link for making sure you have the right corresponding phonetic word.

Numbers are perhaps the worst culprit behind letters. (‘A’ is ‘Alpha,’ not ‘Adam.’) Radio numbers are always read in single digits for complete clarity. ‘Six-eight’ is easier to understand as channel 68 than simply saying ‘68.’

Know the working channels for the area you’re in.

If the local water taxi uses channel 68 to run their business, try and keep that channel clear, simply out of courtesy. And channels 09, 11 and 13 are usually reserved for commercial craft and drawbridges, so keep them clear as well. And I shouldn’t have to mention keeping 16 clear, save for hailing and distress. But you hear people abuse it all the time, and the Coast Guard will remind you.

The serious ones: securité, pan-pan and mayday calls:

Securité (pronounced securitay) calls are made to alert boaters to something – for example, when a commercial ship is leaving the dock, they will usually call on channel 16 “Securtié, Securité, Securité, this is the cargo vessel Asphalt Commander, Asphalt Commander, Asphalt Commander leaving the dock at Baltimore Harbor. Any concerned traffic please call on channel 16.”

This is just an informational message, nothing more. The Coast Guard often broadcasts things like missing navigation marks or any hazards to navigation in the same manner.

Pan-pan (pronounced pahn-pahn) calls are when there is an emergency onboard but it’s not life or death. It’s to signify urgency, but it’s not a call for help. The pan-pan call lets other people out there know that something has happened on board. You should announce your position and what exactly happened, how many people onboard, type and color of boat, etc, but the Coast Guard won’t drop everything and rescue you.

With mayday calls, the US Coast Guard WILL come rescue you, and that’s the point. With a Mayday Call, the boat is going down, on fire or something else catastrophic, and the vessel (or a seriously injured person onboard) needs immediate assistance. Be careful with mayday calls, as sometimes they’ll require you to abandon the boat if help arrives. It’s a last-resort. Don’t abuse it either, as it can result in the classic cry wolf scenario.

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Andy Schell
Andy Schellhttp://59-north.com
Andy Schell is a professional sailor, writer and the event manager of the ARC Caribbean 1500. You can find him online at 59-north.com.

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