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All radios have a clip and slot for inserting the cord for a wristlet. The radio is meant to be carried with the boater. Photo by Helen Aitken
All radios have a clip and slot for inserting the cord for a wristlet. The radio is meant to be carried with the boater. Photo by Helen Aitken

Let’s Talk VHF

Marine VHF radios aren’t required on recreational boats less than 66 feet long, though they are extremely useful on any vessels including kayaks and paddleboards. New radios are waterproof, work submerged, float, have longer battery life and have better warranties than old models. However, they aren’t beneficial unless they are charged, turned on and you know how to use them. Knowing how to operate and speak on a VHF radio can save your life.

Handheld VHF radios are battery powered with 5-6 watts, and have an effective range of 3-8 miles. Today’s handhelds use Lithium-ion batteries that hold a charge longer and can be charged by the boat’s 12V accessory outlet. Fixed radios have 1-25 watts with a range determined by the size of its external antenna. Radios have low and high-power levels, so use the lowest level first.

Cell phones can supplement VHF radios however, because they rely on the strength and proximity of a cell tower, reception may be spotty. Also keep in mind when dialing 9-1-1 from the water your call could be routed to a different location. Moreover, do you have the area Coast Guard number on speed dial?

Although there is no age requirement or license needed to operate a VHF radio, there are guidelines and responsibilities for using one. Know that it is illegal to use a marine VHF radio on shore, or use profanity over the air? Further, it’s a criminal offense to make a false “Mayday” call. Since emergency resources are diverted from real emergencies, phony calls are usually prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

VHF radios aren’t meant for chatting. Keep the message simple, be courteous, and pass on essential information. Remember, only one conversation is transmitted at a time so listen for transmissions before calling and never interfere with ongoing calls. Also, make sure the transmit button isn’t “stuck” open blocking mariners within a 25-30 mile radius from making calls.

Monitor channel 16 for distress and safety broadcasts and to hail other vessels. Don’t monopolize channel 16. Have a prearranged channel, such as channel 72, to direct others for general conversation. Set the dual watch button on the VHF to scan channel 16 and your prearranged channel.

To hail another vessel hold the microphone one inch from your mouth, push the talk button and speak slowly. Say the boat wanted twice, your boat name, followed by “over.” Release the button. If the boat answers, switch to a different channel.

Periodic radio checks are necessary. On a channel 16 say, “Radio check, radio check, radio check, this is Osprey requesting a radio check.” Sea Tow also provides a free radio check on channels 24, 26, 27 or 28 depending on your area. https://www.seatow.com/service-locator.

Need a tow? On channel 16 say,

“Tow BoatUS, Tow BoatUS, this is Osprey.”

“Osprey, this is Tow BoatUS, switch to channel six-eight, channel six-eight, over.”

“Osprey, switching to six-eight, over.”

You will be asked the nature of the call, location, policy number and other information.

Boaters also rely on the VHF radio for weather information, safety notifications, avoiding collisions and broadcasting distress calls. Distress calls include emergencies for life and property, in three levels:

Mayday asks for immediate assistance for life-threatening situations or medical emergencies, taking priority over all calls. Call on channel 16, high power, using this example,

“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is powerboat Osprey, Osprey, Osprey, Mayday, Osprey, over.”

The Coast Guard monitors channel 16 and should respond immediately. Be prepared to answer questions dealing with type of emergency, location, boat description, etc.

Most VHF radios today have a DSC (Digital Selective Calling) button which when activated transmits a distress signal and GPS location to the Coast Guard on Channel 70. The digital message permits clear communication in situations where voice messages would be difficult or impossible to understand. Area boats with DSC radios receive the information as a piercing alarm. Boaters hearing the alarm should immediately switch to channel 16 for additional information. DSC has dramatically increased speed and reliability of distress calls.

Pan-Pan (Pahn-pahn) is an urgent call, not immediately threatening to life or property, but assistance is required, such as running out of fuel, person overboard, inability to operate a vessel, being lost in fog, etc. Transmitted like a “Mayday” call replaced with Pan-Pan.

Sécurité (say-cure-it-tay) is for safety hazard warnings such as a sunken object, weather alerts or unsafe boat movements. Call on channel 16, “Sécurité, Sécurité, Sécurité, Osprey. Go to channel 6 for safety message. Out.” Announce the message.

The VHF radio is a boater’s best friend. For more information, check the VHF manual or take a class from local boating associations.


Helen Aitken is a writer and photographer from eastern N.C. who loves classic wooden boats, “backyard” boat makers, coastal areas, and contributes regularly to All At Sea Southeast magazine. Visit her website at www.

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One comment

  1. As a professional mariner, one that has an unlimited license and currently captains an ATB plying the east coast and Gulf of Mexico, I found the paragraph about radio checks not only misinforming but unprofessional. Remember VHF ch. 16 is a “hailing and distress”. A radio check doesn’t qualify as either.

    Just imagine the east coast of FL on 4th of July or Memorial day with only a quarter of the boaters doing radio checks as suggested above. Not only would no one be able to get a word in edgewise, it would also hinder the communication of commercial vessels and recreational vessels equally trying to arrange passing or meeting arrangements.

    I may suggest either using one of the automated VHF check systems or, in this day and age , calling a friend on your cell phone and setting another predetermined VHF channel to do a radio check on.

    A mariner can also refer to a variety of cruising guides and Coast Pilots to find working channels of marinas or tow agencies to call on their working channels.

    Please also refer to FCC part 80 for the legal mumbo jumbo associated with operating a VHF.

    Enjoy the water safely!

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