Your VHF (very high frequency) radio is one of the best tools you have on board your boat.
Your VHF radio is your link to the Coast Guard, towing services and other first responders. (You can learn more about it here). It allows you to call your friends and fellow boaters. It provides weather information, and more modern versions can call for help and give your position to rescuers. Some can even warn you of other boats getting too close (when connected to an AIS (automated identification system).
Unfortunately, a lot of boaters just don’t know (or ignore) the rules and courtesies of use which makes the VHF one of the most abused tools on a boat.
Let’s start with the basics of using your VHF. Your VHF radio is a line of sight communication tool. Which means it can transmit only as far as the horizon before the curvature of the earth blocks the signals. For most recreational boats, that’s about 5 – 10 miles. The higher the antenna, the longer that distance is. But wait, you say, you can hear the Coast Guard calls from Long Beach when you are in San Diego, and that’s a lot more than 12 miles! That’s because the land-based transmitter for the Coast Guard is really, really tall, and really, really, powerful! And yes, for you techies out there, VHF signals can be impacted by atmospheric conditions (“Tropospheric Bending”) and allow you to hear transmissions from farther away, but you can’t count on that.
Speaking of power, your VHF will generally have two power settings, High and Low. At high power, most VHF radios transmit at about 25 watts. That’s enough power to send a signal about 60 miles in a straight line (if the curvature of the earth was not a factor). At low power, most radios transmit at about 1 watt. That’s enough power to send your signal a few miles. The way a VHF radio works, every channel on the radio is a specific frequency. If you are talking on that frequency, no one else who is in range of your transmission can use that frequency. So what does that mean? If you are trying to talk to your fishing buddy who is a half a mile away from you, and you are transmitting at high power, everyone within the transmission range of that radio (up to 60 miles) can hear you talk, and no one else can use that channel while you are talking! So please don’t be a channel hog! Use your low power setting when calling a close station.
Which Channels Should You Use on Your Boat’s VHF Radio?
So what channels should you use on your VHF? I’m glad you asked! The US Power Squadron provides a useful resource that tells you what each VHF channel is used for: https://www.usps.org/lc/redwood/education/vhf_channels.htm . Channels 68, 69, 71, 72 and 78A are open channels for non-commercial use. Channel 09 is also an open channel but is used by commercial operators too. You’ll hear most boaters conversing on Channels 68 and 69. Channel 16 is purely a hailing and distress frequency. You can call out to your buddy on channel 16, but then quickly switch to an appropriate “working” channel like the ones listed above.
Boat Radio Etiquette
So, you know about power settings and channels, but don’t pick up that mic yet! Let’s talk about radio etiquette. Here are a few simple rules to remember:
- Always listen to a channel for at least 30 seconds after switching to that channel to make sure you are not interrupting another vessels conversation.
- Keep your conversations brief. Don’t be a channel hog.
- Make sure your microphone is not resting on the “Push to talk” button so you don’t accidentally transmit and create an “open mic” situation that ties up a channel.
- Please conduct radio checks only on the non-commercial channels (see above). Here is a link to a recent article by the Coast Guard about radio checks (https://mariners.coastguard.blog/2020/10/19/performing-a-vhf-marine-radio-check/ )
And finally, please, please, please, in the name of all things holy, do not talk on the VHF radio like you are part of a trucking convoy. Don’t get me wrong, I love truckers and all they do for us, but the VHF is not a CB radio. No “10-4 good buddy”, or “Breaker, breaker, Big Kahuna come back…” Please use proper VHF terminology. People will understand you better, and you will sound a lot more professional! Here’s a link to a great article in Sail magazine that discusses proper VHF language.
Now you’ve got all the tips and tricks to get out there and use your VHF like a pro. It’s a great tool, and like anything else, it takes practice to get proficient at using it.
This is Captain Dave, standing by on Channel 16. Out!