A Guide to Properly Using a VHF Radio on the Water

While it’s not required on recreational watercrafts that fall below the 65-foot mark, a Very High Frequency (VHF) radio is a great tool to keep onboard in case of emergency. It’s the primary means of communication out on coastal waters, and has a lot to offer a captain that the traditional cellular device just doesn’t have. 

But ever since the introduction of the cell phone — particularly smartphones — the art of understanding the proper etiquette, important benefits and terminology, and overall use of a VHF radio has decreased dramatically. For the sake of yourself, your boat, and your passengers, here are a few important things you need to know about leveraging a VHF radio to keep all safe.

boat console

What is a Marine VHF Radio?

A marine “Very High Frequency” or VHF radio enables captains to instantly communicate with one another, as well as marinas, bridges, and the United States Coast Guard (USCG) as needed. It has a lot of characteristics that make it the optimum choice for marine communications, including instant access to around-the-clock National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) weather forecasting system. 

Types of VHF Radios

There are two common types of VHF radios to consider: a fixed-mount or a handheld system. 

The most cost-effective safety item you can install on your boat has to be a fixed-mount VHF radio, because it will allow you to communicate with a wide range of organizations. But a fixed-mount VHF radio is only going to work well if its antenna system is mounted at the highest possible point of the boat, which will allow its signal to reach more distant stations while you are in motion. 

A handheld VHF radio is a small, portable transceiver that offers short-range communication up to five miles with other vessels and twenty miles with land-based stations. They’re typically waterproof, in case they somehow get wet, and the rechargeable batteries can last anywhere from eight to fifteen hours, depending on how much you are using it at any given time. The main disadvantage to the handheld unit over the fixed-mount radio solution is its range. 

Why is a VHF Radio Important?

A VHF radio should still be your go-to communication device, especially in case of emergency. Communication with other boats and marinas, particularly for safely navigating in and out of marina or port entries, is very important — which is where your VHF radio device will come in handy. 

While the popularity of cell phones has created a false sense of security for most, there could be areas on the water where your phone won’t get enough of a signal. Cell phones in many cases are not waterproof, and are unable to communicate with more than a singular person at one time. Still, having a cell phone onboard allows you to call or text when you’re closer to shore, so it’s always helpful to have them on deck in addition to your VHF device. 

Maritime VHF radio is always recommended for emergency communication with the United States Coast Guard, as well as local wildlife and law enforcement entities. And as a recreational boater within the United States, you won’t need a license to operate your VHF marine radio.

How Does it Work?

First, make sure you are on the correct channel. For example, in USCG District 1, Channel 9 has been designated as the hailing channel. Ensure you are using a hailing channel versus an emergency channel, depending on the situation. Be sure to check with your local coast guard to find out what channel they utilize in case of emergency. 

Morningstar Marinas Pro Tip → Morningstar’s coastal marinas are located in Districts 5 & 7. See this helpful USCG VHF Channel Information guide to better understand what channel numbers you need to be set to in order to contact local agencies and emergency help.

Communication Techniques Via VHF Marine Radio 

Adjust the “squelch” control to the lowest possible setting without hearing static or white noise in the background. Then, push the button on the microphone to send your message. Press and hold the transmit button and say in a clear, slow voice, “Mayday, mayday, mayday” or any message you need to convey for help. (See below for additional terminology to note when communicating via VHF marine radio). 

Give your vessel name and description, your current position or location including any known markers in the area. Also clearly state the nature of your emergency and the number of passengers onboard. Finish your transmission with the word “over”, which indicates that you’ve finished your initial message. When you are done with the entire communication, you can finish your message by saying, “over and out”. 

Once you’ve given all of this crucial information, release the transmit button and wait at least ten seconds for a response. If no response comes, repeat this mayday call again. 

Common VHF Terminology to Know 

On occasion, thanks to the potential for static in the background of your VHF radio, you may need to spell out words in order to be understood clearly. That’s where the phonetic alphabet comes in handy! Here’s a helpful guide for learning the phonetic alphabet by heart in order to spell out names and words quickly and clearly:

  • A: Alpha
  • B: Bravo
  • C: Charlie
  • D: Delta
  • E: Echo
  • F: Foxtrot
  • G: Golf
  • H: Hotel
  • I: India
  • J: Juliet
  • K: Kilo
  • L: Lima
  • M: Mike
  • N: November
  • O: Oscar
  • P: Papa
  • Q: Quebec
  • R: Romeo
  • S: Sierra
  • T: Tango
  • U: Uniform
  • V: Victor
  • W: Whiskey
  • X: X-ray
  • Y: Yankee
  • Z: Zulu

Other important terms include a variation of emergency procedure words, which can alert all in the area to the seriousness of your situation with minimal talking required. Here is a list of words you should memorize and use in case of emergency:

  • Mayday: A boat or crew is in grave danger, including a life-threatening emergency or possibility of losing the watercraft.
  • Pan-Pan: A boat or crew requires urgent assistance, such as a serious mechanical breakdown that is urgent but not life-threatening. This term handles such a wide range of difficulties, so be sure to add more information following the use of this term. 
  • Sécurité: Important safety information follows after this word — it could be important information for another vessel’s safety. This covers a wide range of issues such as hazards to avoid, coast guard safety broadcasts, traffic alerts, etc.

As always, exercise total caution when you head out on the water, and be sure to have all of the right tools and resources needed to ensure you and your passengers make it home safely at the end of the day!

Morningstar Marinas Can Help

At Morningstar Marinas, we pride ourselves on the community of boaters we’ve created across the Southeast’s top boating destinations. Our facilities and services paired with our friendly and knowledgeable team members will help you quickly and efficiently get out there on the water, so you can start having fun! Morningstar Marinas is more than just a place to store your boat — we’re here to offer you an unforgettable boating experience, every time.