Making a VHF call sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? Figure out what you want to say, hold down the little button, talk, reply, done. Then why is it some of us (at least to begin with) wince at the thought of having to make a call, even something as straightforward as calling a marina?

I thought about it and figured there were a few things worrying me. Would I make a mistake? Would I use the right terminology? Would I forget what to say? Would I say everything in the right order? Would I accidentally say, “over and out”? Were a bunch of people listening thinking I was a babbling idiot!? Eventually I decided I needed to grow a pair and get on with it, and now, with a bit of practice under my belt, it’s not scary at all.

We’ve also just bought two handheld radios, mainly to save one of us having to go down below at a time when you need a decent lookout. Yet to be used, but I reckon they’ll make our lives a bit easier.

What is a VHF radio?

  • The primary way for you to communicate with other boats, a bridge, a lock operator, harbour master, race committee, and rescuing agencies like the Coast Guard or towing service.
  • Arguably the most important safety item onboard your boat, and far more reliable than a mobile phone. It’s your best safety line to get help should any kind of emergency arise, whether mechanical or medical.
  • A great source for weather bulletins and marine advisories.
  • A way to obtain navigational guidance if you’re unfamiliar with a particular area.

What do all those buttons mean?

Articles explaining what all those buttons on your VHF mean are few and far between. This one (about halfway down) gives some information, your radio of course is likely to vary so read the manual. If you’ve lost it, try Google.

Types of calls and how to make them

The clearest and simplest overview I found of the types of VHF calls and how to make them is (randomly) on this Kayaking website. It covers:

  • Non-emergency ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore VHF communication (if, for example, you want to hail your friends on the radio).
  • Safety VHF use (a Securite call)
  • Emergency communication (Mayday, Pan Pan)
    • In an emergency situation you’re likely to be in a panic, so it’s a good idea to print out what needs to be said so you, or one of your crew, can read from it. Here’s a template in PDF format.

There’s one thing not included and that’s a radio check, here’s how to do one. In the US, SeaTow offer an automated radio check service (pretty neat!). Read about it here.

A bit of VHF etiquette

  • Transmit with identification: calls should start with saying the name of the boat you’re calling and the name of your own boat, three times.
  • When you’re finished say “over” – not “over and out” (however many times you’ve heard it in a movie!). “Out” means you’re done and not expecting any further communication.
  • Use the NATO phonetic alphabet when speaking letters
  • Read radio numbers single digits for clarity (six, eight, not sixty eight).
  • Know the working channels for the area you’re in. Here’s a list a list for if you’re in the US, or in the UK.

DSC: Digital Selective Calling

DSC is a facility which automates many of the procedures which would otherwise be carried out by voice on Channel 16. The most common situation for when it’s used by recreational sailors is for a distress call, which with a DSC can be transmitted by the touch of a button. Most newer radios now have DSC but it’s important to make sure it’s activated. Here’s a video explaining how to check, and activate yours.

A (great!) online tutorial

The US Coast Guard and the Boat U.S. Foundation have put together a great (half hour) online tutorial called “Can You Hear Me?” which summarises the use of VHF and DSC radios. You can find it here. Good to know: the download only works for PC’s. If you have a Mac you’ll need the online tutorial.

Interested in doing a course?

Find details here: UKUSAustralia and Canada (sorry if your country is missing – a Google search will unearth some information).

Do you need a license?

Rules differ per country, here’s some more information for the UKUSAustralia and Canada.

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