How To Use A VHF Radio On A Boat: Basic Communications

Monitoring and talking on the Very High Frequency (VHF) radio channels is something every boater should know how to do. Unfortunately, many pleasure boaters don’t learn the basic protocols for using a VHF radio on a boat before they get behind the wheel. Here we have compiled some of the most important aspects of marine radio communication that can serve as a basic primer for new boaters and a review for seasoned boaters.

Fortunately, you do not need advanced training and a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Marine Radio Operators Permit to use a VHF radio. Monitoring and talking on the radio is part of every boat operator’s regular routine and these are essential fundamental skills that are a part of good basic boating knowledge. Remember, there’s a big difference between using a cell phone and the very public, very high frequency radio channels—or at least there should be!

Above: Ryan McVinney and Captain Jeff Lagrew with America’s Boating Club provide a basic tutorial for marine radio communications using a handheld VHF radio onboard a 2022 Four Winns H4 at Intermarine in Pompano Beach, FL.

How To Use A VHF Radio On A Boat

  1. Turn the VHF radio on and turn the squelch knob until the static stops.
  2. Press the “16” button (usually a blue button) to tune directly to channel 16. This channel should be monitored at all times. You should also regularly scan channels 9 (the hailing channel) and 13 (for bridges).
  3. VHF Test Call – Checking your VHF radio is important to make sure it is working properly. Handheld VHF radios can use channel 9 to request a ship-to-ship radio test if needed. Simple tune to channel 9 and say “this is [your vessel name] requesting a radio check from nearby vessels, over”. Alternatively, boaters can use Use any “open channel” to perform a radio check, generally channels 68, 69, 71, 72 and 78A. Fixed DSC radios have a built in radio check test call feature (required by the USCG) that can be used on channel 70 (follow the radio manual for how to operate a test call).
  4. Keep Your Radio On – Make sure the radio stays on and the volume is up so that you can properly monitor channel 16. Some radios have a power saving option that lets you monitor while the unit uses minimal battery energy and lasts longer. You should keep your radio on and monitoring during the duration of your time on the water.
How To Use A VHF Radio For Boaters

Above: Learning how to use a handheld VHF radio on a boat is a key part of basic boating skills. The above VHF Marine Transceiver IC-M2A is an example of a simple but powerful boating safety tool built by iCom. Photo by Ryan McVinney for Boat Trader.

Marine VHF Radio Channels: Know The Correct Frequencies

There are a number of important channels to know and understand before you hit the water with your VHF radio and start calling other boaters. Because these same radio frequencies are used by commercial ships, and planes with licensed operators and call signs and monitored by USCG life saving authorities, the FCC has limitations on what and how things should be said. Anyone can talk on the radio within these confines and pleasure boaters are not required to have an FCC permit to do so, but because this has to do primarily with safety there are certain fundamentals, i.e. protocols, that everyone must follow.

We will not cover every channel in this brief guide, but we will cover the most important channels and how they should be used so that you can feel confident on the water.

  • Channel 16 – All boaters should use and monitor channel 16 at all times. Channel 16 is primarily used for ship-to-ship communications and emergencies.
  • Channel 13 – This channel is generally used for navigation and bridges will usually monitor this channel as well, so it is the first channel to try when hailing a bridge up ahead and requesting an opening.
  • Channel 09 – This is the general hailing channel and is used as the preferred hailing channel by many recreational boaters rather than Channel 16, as that channel is used by many larger commercial ships. In fact, the FCC has designated Channel 09 as a recreational calling channel in order to eliminate congestion on Channel 16, however the Coast Guard does not monitor Channel 09. Some bridges may monitor Channel 09, depending on location.
  • Channel 22 – This channel is reserved for the Coast Guard (USCG) and should not be used unless you are speaking directly to the Coast Guard. You should hail the Coast Guard on Channel 16 before switching to Channel 22 to continue the conversation (which they will advise you to do, once they receive your initial emergency call).
  • Channel 06 – This channel is used for ship-to-ship safety messages and communication with search and rescue and Coast Guard vessels and aircraft. Do not use this channel unless you are directly communicating with another party under those circumstances.
  • Channels 68, 69, 71 and 72 – These are all channels used for direct communications between vessels. Often referred to as “open channels” or “non-working channels”, boat captains will usually request to move to one of these channels after establishing initial contact through Channel 16 or Channel 09.

Radio Basics For Boating Communications

  • Radio transmissions should be in English.
  • The captain of the ship has ultimate control of the ship’s radio.
  • Radio communication protocol is to first state the safety phrase 3x (if there is an urgent situation) and then state the name of the vessel and location before continuing with your message.
  • Distress traffic (grave and imminent danger requesting immediate assistance) in radiotelephony is expressed by speaking the word “Mayday” 3x at the beginning of the message, followed by the call sign and or name of the vessel. Then the particulars that would facilitate rescue such as position, length, color, and type of vessel, number of persons onboard, and nature of distress are given.
  • After Distress (see above), the next message priority is Urgent, which involves the safety of ship or person onboard. This is conveyed by speaking the word “Pan” 3x. (Pronounced “pon”.)
  •  Safety is the next message priority, which conveys a navigational or weather warning by speaking the word “Securité” 3x.
  • These three are the only messages that are general broadcast. All others should be directed to a specific vessel or station.
  • Channel 16 (156.8 Mhz) should be monitored at all times. It is reserved for hailing and emergencies. Most radios have dual monitor switches that allow you to hear channel 16 and another channel at the same time. Commercial ships will monitor 16 and use channel 13 for hailing. You MUST switch to another channel for basic communications.
  • When attempting to contact other vessels on ch 16, limit calling to 30 seconds. If no answer is received, wait 2 minutes before calling again.
  • When you call another vessel, say the name three times and then ALWAYS identify your vessel. e.g., “BYC launch, BYC launch, BYC Launch, this is motor vessel Albacore channel 68, over.”
  • The word “over” lets the other party know we are done talking and it is their turn to talk. “Clear” ends a transmission without further response. “Wilco”says that the message is received and will be complied with.  “Roger” tells the other operator that all of a transmission has been received.
  • If you hear other people talking on your frequency, let them finish! Don’t talk over or “step on” other radio traffic, and always listen before transmitting.
  • Cursing and swearing is not allowed.
  • Make it short and sweet. Get to the point. Remember the safety nature of the medium. If you want to talk about how the fish are biting or how great the weather is, make sure you are on a “non-working frequency” (those routinely monitored by harbor masters or marinas for instance). Or better yet have these private conversations on your cell phone. Needless or superfluous radio communications are not authorized in maritime service. The primary purpose of bridge to bridge communications is for navigational communication.
  • Most cruising guides will provide the frequencies routinely monitored by harbor masters, marinas and yacht clubs.
  • Radio checks are a way of knowing your radio is sending and receiving properly. Again identify yourself, “radio test, radio test, radio test, M/V Albacore ch 68.” The proper response being, “M/V [VESSEL NAME], loud and clear, (your location) [Harbor name].”
  • Signoff properly when your call is complete: “This is M/V [VESSEL NAME] going back to 16/13, off and clear.”

For more information about VHF radio protocols, read the study questions and answers to the marine radio operators permit test, or simply understand the larger FCC role in marine safety. VHF radios play an important part in safety at sea and should be used with respect and understanding of FCC and international treaty regulations.

Visit America’s Boating Club for more detailed, in-depth boating courses

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Written by: Ryan McVinney

C. Ryan McVinney is a film director, producer, writer, actor, boat captain, outdoor enthusiast and conservationist. He's currently the host and director of Boat Trader's Stomping Grounds TV show that explores boating culture across America. McVinney produces the Cult Classics video series for YachtWorld and the Factory Fridays show for boats.com and is a regular contributor to leading marine industry publications.

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