Sailing 101: Radio Not, Here It Comes! Announcing Trouble Through Your VHF Radio

Ahoy sailors, you should be well versed in maritime navigation tools. Now it’s time to talk about your VHF Radio. This will be an introduction to how it works, and an explanation on how to use it for emergency and non-emergency situations. This two-part lesson will continue on in the next issue where we discuss what to do if you hear a distress call.

A marine VHF radio, (Very High Frequency), is global system of two-way radio transceivers on ships and watercrafts used for bidirectional voice communication from ship to ship. VHF radios are not required in recreational boats under 65.5 feet in length, however, a VHF radio does allow for instant communication between your boats and those surrounding you, marinas, bridges, and the United States Coast Guard (USCG). A VHF radio is the primary means of communication while out on the water and has many advantages that a cell phone doesn’t making it the preferred method of communicating on the water.


VHF Radio Basics

To use your VHF radio, it helps if you start by turning it on and picking a channel. Set your squelch as low as possible, to the point where you hear no white noise; you can then begin speaking. A squelch is a circuit that suppresses the output of a radio receiver if the signal strength falls below a certain level. Push the button on the microphone to transmit. Take your finger off the button to allow for responses.


How to Use Your VHF Radio

The standard process for a non-emergency call, such as calling another vessel, marina, or restaurant to ask where to tie up for dinner, is as follows:

Call the vessel, marina, or restaurant on Channel 9 in the following manner:

  1. Say the name of the station being called three times.
  2. The words “THIS IS” spoken once.
  3. Name of your vessel spoken once.
  4. The word “OVER.”
  5. Then wait for the station you called to answer. Their answer should be in the same manner as your call.
  6. Once answered, you should suggest a specific working channel to carry on your conversation.
  7. Then the word “OVER.”
  8. Wait for a reply or confirmation from the station being called, switch to the working channel, and repeat the process.
  9. When done speaking and leaving a specific channel, use the word ” OUT” at the end.


An Example of a Non-Emergency Call

Calling Station“Dana Point Marina, Dana Point Marina, Dana Point Marina, THIS IS the motor vessel Vitamin Sea. OVER.”

Responding Station: “Vitamin Sea, Vitamin Sea, Vitamin Sea, this is Dana Point Marina. OVER.”

Calling Station: “Please switch and listen to Channel 68. OVER.”

Responding Station: “Switching Channel 68, OUT.”

You would then switch to Channel 68, call Dana Point Marina using the same procedure, and conduct your conversation. Again, all discussions, whether on a hailing or working channel, should be kept brief and to the point.


A Mayday Situation

“MAYDAY” is only to be used in an emergency situation where the boat and/or persons on board are in inevitable danger of sinking or significant injury or death. A situation may arise with a short amount of time to execute your distress call. Here’s what you do; transmit in this order:

  1. Tune your radio to Channel 16.
  2. Distress signal “MAYDAY” communicated three times.
  3. The words “THIS IS” spoken once.
  4. Name of vessel in distress spoken three times.
  5. Announce the vessel’s position by latitude or longitude or by bearing (true or magnetic; state which) and distance to a well-known landmark such as a navigational aid or small island, or in any terms which will assist a responding station in locating the vessel in distress. Include any information on vessel movement such as course, speed, and destination.
  6. Explain the nature of your distress (sinking, fire, etc.).
  7. Indicate the number of people on board.
  8. Provide the kind of assistance you want.
  9. Communicate any other information that may aid in the rescue, such as length or tonnage of vessel, number of persons in need of medical attention, the color of the hull, cabin, masts, etc.
  10. The word “OVER.”


An Example of a Mayday Call

  • “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY – This is Vitamin Sea, Vitamin Sea, Vitamin Sea, Cape Henry Light bears 185 degrees magnetic, distance two miles struck submerged object need pumps, medical assistance, and tow. Three adults and two children are on board. One person with a fractured arm. Estimated that the vessel can stay afloat for two hours. Thirty-two-foot cabin cruiser, white hull, blue deck house, over.
  • Repeat this in intervals until an answer is given and received.
  • For a potentially dangerous situation, which may or may not end up in a “MAYDAY,” use “PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN” (pronounced pahn pahn). This is used when the safety of a vessel or person is in jeopardy.
  • For important announcements that you want others to pay attention to, say “SECURITAY” (the French pronunciation of “Security”). For example, to report a submerged log in a particular vicinity.


Radio Channels

  • Channel 9: The primary calling channel. You should establish contact on this channel and move to a “working channel” as soon as possible.
  • Channel 16: Emergency and Distress calls only.
  • Channel 22A: This channel is restricted to USCG use only. If you establish contact with the USCG on Channel 9 or 16, they may ask you to switch to Channel 22A. You may also hear an announcement on Channel 16 to switch to Channel 22A for important information.
  • Channel 13: This channel is for bridge-to-bridge communications between vessels. This channel can also be used to request bridge openings. Ships less than 65 feet in length maintain a listening watch on this channel in U.S. waters. This is an excellent channel to listen to during times of poor visibility so that you can communicate with ferries, freighters, and other large vessels. (You must use the low power on your radio when broadcasting on Channel 13.)
  • Channels 68, 69, 71, 72, 78A: These are all “Working Channels.” These are the only channels available to non-commercial vessels for ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications. Although you may have many other channels on your radio, they are restricted to specific uses.

Share This:


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *