How to Use a VHF RadioBoater on radio

by Thomas M. Kane

photos by Thomas M. Kane

More and more, the VHF radio is fast becoming standard equipment on all boats. Still not required by law for boats under 65 feet, the VHF (very high frequency) radio can be invaluable in an emergency. For hand-held as well as fixed-mount radios, the costs range from under $100 to just over $300.

In February 1996, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made it easier to own a VHF radio by not requiring an operator to have a license. Boaters who violate the FCC Communications Act, however, could be subject to having their radio privileges revoked. If repeated violations occur, the punishment may include fines or imprisonment. False distress or emergency messages, as well as obscene, indecent or profane language, are strictly prohibited.

Waterways Conservation Officer Martha Mackey said, "Not only does the Commission recommend having a VHF radio, we also instruct boaters on the proper use of the radio during our safe boating courses." Boaters talking with other boaters, hailing lock tenders, speaking with commercial vessels, and monitoring the marine weather station are all valid reasons to have a VHF on board. However, knowing the proper techniques to use a VHF, and properly summoning the Coast Guard for help, may just save your life someday.

To use a VHF radio properly, first turn your radio on and slowly adjust the squelch until the static stops. Make sure the volume is set at a comfortable level to hear messages over any surrounding noise. Set the radio to the low power setting (one watt), if that option is available. Place the microphone approximately one inch from your mouth. Press the push-to-talk (PTT) button and begin your message. If after broadcasting you get no response, try the high setting (25 watts).

Depending on who you're calling or hailing, radio techniques and channels differ slightly. Speak very slowly and clearly at all times. To assist with correct usage of the VHF, consider three common communication scenarios: boat to boat, boat to lock, and emergency calls.

Boat to boat

Channel 16 is the calling and distress frequency. With microphone in hand, call the boat you are hailing three times, and then identify your boat. Once the other boater receives and acknowledges your call, instruct the operator to switch to a working channel. Channel 68 or 69 is always a good choice. When you are through talking on the working channel, acknowledge the end of the conversation with your boat's name and say "out." Get in the habit of returning to channel 16 to monitor the frequency.

Boater on radio


"Target One, Target One, Target One, this is the Lindsay Ann, over."

"Lindsay Ann, you have Target One, over."

"Target One, switch to channel 68, over."

"10-4. Target One switching to channel 68."

End your conversation by saying your boat's name and the word "out."

Boat to lock

Channel 13 is for commercial vessels and lock tenders. It's important to note that your boat must be in position at the "arrival point" of the lock before you call the lock tender on your radio. If you are not at or near the arrival point of the lock, the lock tender will not give you the estimated time for locking through.

The lock tenders also find it helpful if you tell them what type of boat you are in. Military boats, mail boats, commercial passenger boats and commercial tows or tugs all have priority over pleasure boats.

Your VHF should be set on the low power setting. If you have never been through a lock, or if you require assistance, inform the lock tender when you call.


"Pleasure craft Lindsay Ann calling Allegheny Lock & Dam #2, over."

"Go ahead pleasure craft Lindsay Ann, this is Lock & Dam #2, over."

"This is the pleasure craft Lindsay Ann. I'm in position north of the dam and I'm trying to get an ETA (estimated time of arrival) for a southbound lockage, over."

"Lindsay Ann, it's going to be approximately 20 minutes before we can get you in, over."

"10-4, Lindsay Ann out."

At this point, you'll need to wait until you receive the appropriate signal to enter the lock.

Calling for help in an emergency

Use channel 16 when you need help. The Coast Guard monitors this channel 24 hours a day. Reserve "mayday" only if grave and imminent danger exists: Your boat is taking on water, there's a fire on board, a person is overboard, there's been a collision, or someone on board has a serious injury, for example.

"Mayday" is an international distress signal. It comes from the French verb m'aidez, which means "help me."


"Mayday, mayday, mayday, this is the vessel Lindsay Ann, Lindsay Ann, Lindsay Ann, calling the Coast Guard, over!"

"This is the United States Coast Guard. The vessel calling the Coast Guard go ahead with your mayday, all other vessels stand by, over."

"Coast Guard, this is the Lindsay Ann. Our location is ______(state your exact location). Our mayday is ______(explain the emergency), over".

"10-4 Lindsay Ann, we copy your mayday. What type of vessel are you in?"

"Coast Guard our vessel is ______________ over." (state size, color, etc).

"10-4 Lindsay Ann, we copy your vessel. Be advised help is on the way. All vessels in the vicinity of the Lindsay Ann are asked to assist if possible. This is the United States Coast Guard, out."

When you call for a mayday, not only will the Coast Guard respond, but other boaters who are monitoring the frequency may respond as well. Channel 16 was initially designed only for emergency calls. Hailing another boater on this channel is allowed, but you must switch to a working channel once the other boater is reached.

In the event that you are unable to make contact with another boater, or person you are hailing, wait at least two minutes before trying to call again. Should you need to make a radio check for a newly installed radio, it must be done on any channel other than channel 16.

The advantage of having a VHF radio on board cannot be overemphasized. No matter what size boat you're in, a VHF radio should be on your safety checklist.

VHF Radio or Cell Phone?

A cell phone lets you call other boaters who have cell phones and whose phone numbers you know. You can also call home to have dinner started, or call for help if there is a problem on board.

With 911 emergency call centers available in most cities, the cell phone can be effective if someone on board your boat becomes seriously ill or injured. You are now able to speak directly with a dispatcher and have rescue personnel or an ambulance meet you at a specified dock. However, on most waterways, you can reach the Coast Guard faster with a VHF radio. Furthermore, the range of a VHF radio is 25 miles. Cell phone range may be limited in some areas.

Although a cell phone can be a great asset to have on board, a slight advantage may still be with a VHF radio. If for no other reason, when you call for help over a VHF radio, other boaters who are monitoring channel 16 will hear the call for help, and may be able to assist you sooner than those who you call with a cell phone.

Even though arguments can be made for each form of communication, the ideal situation is having a VHF radio and a cell phone on board your boat.--TMK.

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July/August 2000 Angler & Boater

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