How to Use a VHF Radio

Icom M72 VHF radio ready for use on channel 16.

When paddling, you might need to communicate to other vessels. One tool that a kayaker or canoeist can use to communicate is a handheld VHF radio. A VHF radio broadcasts your message out to other boaters in the area listening to their radios. You can use VHF radios in emergencies or just to relay information. Knowing how to use one allows you to get your message out quickly, so you can concentrate on paddling.

VHF Etiquette

Think of a VHF radio as a direct connection to every other vessel in your line-of-sight and within your radio’s range. When you talk on it, every other vessel in the area hears what you’re saying. Most of the other boaters aren’t interested in hearing it, so keep any communication short and only use it when you have to. I.e. no one wants to hear a conversation about what color of underwear you’re wearing. The airways are limited and lots of users need to pass along information, so the less you use it, the more others can do what they need to.

Keep your conversations short and to the point.

Many countries require a license to use a VHF radio. One reason for the license is to keep the on-air conversations following specific protocols, which helps shape the communication and keep everything understandable. In some countries, like the U.S., laws allow recreational users to use VHF radios without requiring a license. Despite the lack of licensing, users must adhere to the established communication protocols.

VHF Radio Channels

To help prevent on-the-air choke holds of one channel, the VHF radio band is divided into different channels. You can usually select channels on your VHF radio by pushing up or down buttons. Each channel has a specific designation on who can use the channel, so before you begin talking make sure that you’re allowed to use that channel.

The most important VHF channel is 16. The U.S. Coast Guard says this about channel 16, “International Distress, Safety and Calling. Ships required to carry radio, USCG, and most coast stations maintain a listening watch on this channel.” It’s used when you need to hail (call) another vessel or broadcast an emergency or safety situation. After contacting a vessel, except in an emergency, you must move off of channel 16 to leave it open for other users. You can also use channel 9 to hail other craft. When someone broadcasts an emergency on channel 16, don’t use it until resolved. Essentially, all communication starts on 16 or 9.

Channels 68, 69 and 78A (plus 79A and 80A in the Great Lakes) are designated non-commercial channels. These are the channels that you use to carry on a conversation after you establish contact. When you’re hailing another vessel, that vessel will tell you which channel to switch to. It’s often one of these. When you’re hailed, you should suggest one of these channels to switch to.

A full list of U.S. VHF channels is on the U.S. Coast Guard’s Navigation Center website.

Nonemergency Ship-to-Ship or Ship-to-Shore VHF Communication

One common use of VHF radios is to contact other vessels or contact shore-based stations, like a lock and dam system or a harbor master. You establish contact by hailing. A hail follows this protocol:

  1. Say the name of Station you’re calling three times.
  2. This is [vessel name].
  3. OVER.
  4. Contact replies (Step 1 to 2). States channel to switch to. OVER.
  5. Repeat 1 to 2, ROGER [channel #].
  6. OUT.
  7. Switch. Wait for contact. Step 1 to 2, [communicate message], OVER.
  8. End with OUT.

A conversation between two kayakers might sound like this:

Kayak Romany: Explorer. Explorer. Explorer. This is Romany. Over.
Kayak Explorer: Romany. Romany. Romany. This is Explorer. Switch to 68. Over.
Kayak Romany: Explorer. This is Romany. Roger 68. Out.
Kayak Explorer (Switches to 68): Romany. Romany. Romany. This is Explorer on 68. Over.
Kayak Romany (Switches to 68): Explorer. Explorer. Explorer. This is Romany. I’m one mile out from the Grand Marais harbor. What’s your position? Over.
Kayak Explorer: I’m two miles out from the Grand Marais harbor. Over.
Kayak Romany: We’ll wait for you at the DNR beach. Over.
Kayak Explorer: See you there. Out.
Kayak Romany: Out.

Safety VHF Use

You can use a VHF radio to communicate important or unusual safety information to other boaters around you using a Securite call. Most often you’ll hear this call originating from the Coast Guard, but you might find a time to use it. One popular use among kayakers is announcing kayak crossings. A Securite call follows this protocol:

  1. Securite. Securite. Securite.
  2. All Stations. All Stations. All Stations.
  3. This is [say vessel name 3 times].
  4. Safety message concerning [location] to follow on channel [#].
  5. Vessel name and description.
  6. OUT.
  7. Repeat on new channel with hazard.

It might sound like this:

Romany: Securite. Securite. Securite. All Stations. All Stations. All Stations. This is Romany. Romany Romany. Safety message concerning Pigeon Point and Isle Royale to follow on channel 9. Romany is a 16-foot red kayak. Out.
Romany (Switches to 9): Securite. Securite. Securite. All Stations. All Stations. All Stations. This is Romany. Romany Romany. Safety message concerning Pigeon Point and Isle Royale. Today at 7am a group of five kayaks are crossing from Pigeon Point to Washington Harbor. Speed is 4 knots. Expected completion at 10:30am. For additional information contact Romany, a 16-foot red kayak, on channel 16. Out.

Emergency VHF Communication (Mayday, Pan Pan)

You use one of two different protocols to announce an emergency. For emergencies that immediately threaten life or vessel, call a Mayday. For emergencies where no life or vessel is threatened call a Pan Pan. It’s important to stay calm during an emergency call. Keep the message simple by relaying only the important information and repeat your message every 10 seconds until someone answers your call. Your handheld radio is low in the water; in rough water, the message might not transmit clearly.

Mayday Protocol:

  1. Mayday. Mayday. Mayday.
  2. This is [say vessel name 3 times].
  3. At Position [say location].
  4. State nature of emergency.
  5. Type of assistance needed.
  6. Number of people involved.
  7. Vessel name and description [2 times].
  8. OVER. Wait 10 sec. repeat.

Pan Pan Protocol:

  1. Pan Pan. Pan Pan. Pan Pan.
  2. All Stations. All Stations. All Stations.
  3. Same as Mayday 2 to 7.
  4. Resolved send “URGENCY ENDED.”

A Mayday might sound like this:

Romany: Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. This is Romany. Romany. Romany. Bearing 35 degrees magnetic — distance about 1 mile from Terrace Point. Lost boat with victims in the water. Need rescue. Two adults. Romany is a 16-foot red kayak. The other kayak is 18 feet and blue. Over.

[download box title=”VHF Radio Cheat Sheet”]

While it’s best to memorize the VHF protocols before use, it is nice to have a cheat sheet available for practice and training. Print the pdf out, cut out the two pages and laminate to a 3- by 5-inch index card. Use these cards during role-playing exercises until the participants have the protocols memorized.

[/download box]

Suggested Handheld VHF Radios for Kayakers by Kayakers

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