The radio on your boat is one of the most important pieces of safety equipment. With a fixed unit at the chart table and a handheld in the cockpit, you’re always set up for communication whatever the situation – whether you’re calling the marina to announce your arrival, letting Dover know you’re passing by, or need to put in an emergency man overboard call. This article looks at the top 10 tips for getting the most out of your VHF marine radio systems.

1 Get your documents in order

On UK boats, you will need two pieces of paper if you want to operate the VHF radio on your vessel legally. One is a ship radio licence, which you can get free and easily here. When you apply for this licence, you will be assigned an MMSI number and call sign – both essential for identifying your boat. The other is your personal authority to operate a marine VHF radio. For this, you need to take a one-day course which ends in a short written test. On the issue of documents, remember the one that comes with every radio – the manual. Read it.

2 Radio check, please

If you haven’t used your boat’s VHF radio for some time, at at least once a year or if you suspect problems, test your equipment. While the UK Coastguard will answer your request for “radio check, please”, consider whether you really want to take up their time in this way. You could call your marina, or a UK National Coastwatch Institution (on channel 65). You probably don’t want to put out a radio check call to “all stations” on channel 16… you’ll spend the rest of the day acknowledging the responses.

The procedure for this kind of call is as follows:

“Marina, marina, marina, this is Amneris, Amneris, Amneris, radio check please, over”

3 Keep it short and sweet

You’re not using your ship’s VHF radio to call your best mate for a chat and a gossip, so be brief, clear and precise in the information that you convey. It’s fine to contact your buddy boat on one of the dedicated ship to ship channels to arrange to meet up for a beer in the marina, but save the socialising conversation for when you both get there and the pints have been pulled. You can download a sample conversation containing the key words and procedures for general chat between you and your friend here.

4 Select the right channel and power

All basic communications, including first contact and emergencies, take place on channel 16. This should be your default listening station, and it’s where you will also receive important information such as weather reports, mayday calls, requests for help and assistance, and warnings. There should be a button on your boat’s VHF marine radio which will take you straight to channel 16, so get into the habit of pressing it whenever you’ve been using another channel. You can download a free, printable list of useful UK VHF maritime radio channels here. If you’re outside the UK, there’s an excellent table of resources on this Wiki page, though it’s best to check things with the organisation responsible for maritime radio communications.

Marine VHF radios operate on low power (1w) or high power (25w). High power can be a huge drain on your boat’s batteries, so get into the habit of switching immediately to 1w when you turn on the radio. Reserve high power for when you really need the range, for example in emergency situations. Your radio probably has a button allowing you to toggle easily between 1w and 25w. When you press the DSC button (see the section Distress below), your radio should automatically switch to 25w.

5 Mind your Ps and Qs

We say “please” and “thank you” in everyday life, and there’s no reason not to do so when using a ship’s VHF radio. Avoid language that’s considered offensive too (all words have their place, but the radio isn’t it and you could get into serious trouble if you start effing and blinding on channel 16). Although English is the language of the sea, consider learning how to introduce yourself in the local lingo. And remember that, while marinas rarely stand on ceremony, port and harbour officials sometimes do. “Good morning, sir” might get you a long way in the right situation.

6 Familiarise yourself with procedures

Do you know which channel you should be on? Which key words to use? How to spell out the name of your boat using the phonetic alphabet? How to send a mayday, pan pan or securite? If not, you should learn these now. Above all, learn how the DSC (digital selective calling) button works on your radio. This, when activated, will send a general distress signal to all stations within range, and many radio units will allow you specify the kind of danger you are in, if you have the time. Here are the main procedures when you encounter problems.

Distress

This is the “mayday” call, for use when your ship or crew are in immediate danger. Don’t waste time trying to figure out or justify making a distress call or using the DSC button – if you think you need to do it, you probably do and nobody is going to penalise you if it turns out that the problem was less dangerous than you thought.

You can download a free, printable version of the mayday call procedure here. Consider laminating it or sealing it in a plastic cover and sticking it on a bulkhead next to your radio.

If you hear a mayday call and are in a position to help (after hearing no response from the coastguard or other search and rescue organisation for several minutes), there is a fixed procedure for answering. If you hear a mayday call, don’t hear any response from search and rescue, and are not in a position to help, you can still pass on the message using the mayday relay protocol.

When you hear a mayday call and a response, you might also hear the coastguard use the words “seelonce mayday”. This is an order for all vessels to observe radio silence unless they are part of the rescue or need to send their own mayday. When the situation is over, you will hear the words “seelonce feenee”.

You can download a free, printable version of the mayday response and mayday relay procedures here.

Urgency

You might find yourself in a situation where there is no immediate risk to your vessel or crew, but you still need help. For example, if a crew member falls ill and you don’t know what to do, or if engine failure occurs while becalmed in a TSS (because, if the engine is going to fail, that is exactly when it will happen).

There are two types of urgency call. Seeking medical advice is one, and asking for help in general is another. Both use the key words “pan pan”.

You can download a free, printable version of suggested procedures for both situations here.

Safety

Safety calls are usually made by coastguard and harbourmaster stations, to warn ships of incoming bad weather or a navigation hazard. However, while you are more likely to hear such a call than send one, there are situations in which you might do the latter. For example, if you spot a container floating towards the harbour, or if you notice that the light on an isolated danger marker buoy isn’t working and you don’t recall seeing anything about it being out of action when you checked the notices to mariners before setting off. Safety calls use the key word “securitay”, and if you are making one you can address it to “all stations, all stations, all stations”, followed by a suitable very brief message and instructions to move to a working channel, but it’s better to address the nearest coastguard station if possible.

You can download a free, printable version of example safety call procedures here.

7 Don’t panic

Even if you download our free, printable mayday procedure guide and stick it up next to the radio, you might stil make mistakes. The need to send a mayday call is, by definition, a stressful situation in which you might not be thinking as logically as you might in ordinary circumstances. If you become flustered or forget what to say, don’t worry. Our marine VHF radio course was taught by an ex-coastguard with more than 20 years of experience. He told us that, in all his years of service, he had heard no more than three completely correct mayday calls, but that didn’t mean the rest were ignored.

8 Bag it up… but carefully

If you have a handheld VHF radio in the cockpit, you might want to protect it with a waterproof bag (though there are some excellent models on the market that are truly waterproof in themselves, and also float). If you’re going to do this, choose a bag with plenty of room so that the antenna isn’t bent, and make sure that condensation cannot form inside.

9 What’s wrong?

What if you get no response to your “radio check” call? What do you do if you suspect that your radio is not working? You will need to do some troubleshooting, for which the manual will be a great help. Don’t assume that the radio itself isn’t working. Remember that a marine VHF radio is a system, which consists of the unit itself, the connections, the power and antenna cables, and the antenna. Get to a safe place and work methodically through these, and do call in an expert if you can’t fix it yourself.

10 Know your tech

You might have a basic marine VHF radio on your boat, which sends and receives messages reliably and does very little else. Modern radios are likely to connect to a GPS system too, so you will see your position on the display. You might even have AIS built in. The more features your radio has, the more important it is to learn how to access them and how they work. You can have all the bells and whistles in the world, but they may as well not be there if you don’t know how to ding or blow them. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: read the manual (even if you are a man).

Further resources

Download our free phonetic alphabet, signal flags and morse code learning materials here.

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