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Learn How to use your VHF Marine Radio

Here are some basic pointers for VHF marine radio newbies. Even if you're a seasoned hand, it is worth printing this out and passing it on to green hands aboard. Think of you're loved ones, friends, crew-mates or passengers in you're care completely helpless should you become incapacitated. Make a practice to orient others how to call for help should things go sideways.

marine VHF radio use
  • When you turn on the radio, de-tune the squelch dial until static is heard over the speaker. This allows you to adjust the speaker volume. Then re-tune Squelch just enough to make the static stop for most sensitive reception.

  • Adjust band to USA frequency when in US waters. Radios offered for sale in US will include International band for waters outside US and WX band for receiving NOAA weather broadcasts

  • Monitor channel 16, an international standard for distress and hailing. All mariners are required to monitor this channel whenever their boat is in motion.

  • If you are monitoring a second channel, you can use the scan button to toggle between 16 and channel of choice. This function will automatically switch to whichever channel a transmission is heard.

  • When speaking, hold the mic so that fingers are clear of mic holes.(Mic location is typically a few small holes or slit somewhere on the periphery of speaker grill.)

  • Press and hold the Push To Talk (PTT) button to speak. Hesitate for one second before speaking. Otherwise your first words will be missed.

  • Release the Push To Talk (PTT) button when finished speaking to listen.

  • Only attempt to talk when all other parties on the frequency are silent. In VHF, the strongest signal dominates, which means you could be "stomping" on someone else's transmission. This is critical for distress call reception.

  • Speak slowly and clearly. VHF radiowaves can distort the sound of your voice, making clarity essential.

  • Use channel 16 for distress calls and hailing only. If you need to speak to another vessel, hail them on 16 and agree to switch up to a working channel on the recreational band such as 68, 69, 71 etc, to carry on the conversation.

  • This link has a complete listing of VHF channels and frequencies

  • Hail another vessel or shore station by repeating their name 3 times and concluding with your vessel name: "Planet Earth, Planet Earth, Planet Earth, this is Moon Base OVER".

  • End transmission with either the Proword "Over" meaning I am done talking for the moment, or "Out" meaning I am signing off from this channel/dialogue.

  • Do not initiate your reply until the other station has indicated they are clear via the words "Over". If you talk over another person, only the strongest signal is heard, leading to frustration.

  • To transmit life threatening emergency, begin by saying the prowords "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday" then follow with vessel name "This is the SS Minnow", vessel description "30 foot white hulled sloop", current location "at location 42 degrees 05 minutes decimal 3 North, 73 degrees 05 minutes decimal 2 West", nature of distress "we are taking on water", number of passengers "5 souls aboard wearing life jackets", present course of action "Water has overtaken engines and we are preparing to abandon ship", type of assistance required "5 persons abandoning ship to inflatable life raft. Request immediate assistance from any nearby vessels", conclude the transmission by repeating vessel name and location, end transmission with the word "over"

  • The prowords "SECURITE, SECURITE, SECURITE", is a mariners heads up call, used to alert others to presence of dangerous debris in the water of for traffic concerns of large vessels in the area. The call may follow with information such as "this is the Passenger Ferry M/V Eagle departing the dock Lewis Bay outbound Hyannis Harbor bound for Nantucket." You may conclude with how to contact you with something like "Any concerned traffic can hail M/V Eagle on channels 13 and 16. OVER."

  • When first powering on your radio at the start of a day or trip, begin with a radio check. As of revised standards, radio checks are permissible on channel 16. Perform radio check by saying "radio check" and location: "Radio check Newport Harbor." This is useful for others testing their reception and for you to gauge the audible range of your transmission. The proper way to reply is "loud and clear in 'Bristol harbor'" or "5 by 5 in 'Warwick Cove'"

  • When speaking on open deck, be sure to shield the mic from wind. Duck behind a console or block with shirt before speaking or all that will be heard is rushing wind. Likewise, when listening in windy conditions, you may hold the remote mic to your ear. It doubles as a speaker.

Use these tips and you'll be sounding like a seasoned old salt in no time flat.

For more info, check out this complete listing of VHF channels and frequencies

written by Michael Reardon

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