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VHF Radio Guide

Electronics > VHF Radio Guide


This article will outline the basic principles you need to know about VHF Marine Radios:
  •  Benefits of VHF Radios
  •  Radio "lingo" and talk
  •  Proper Usage
  •  Radio Channels
  •  FREE! downloadable channel guide
  •  Recommended Products

Reasons to have a VHF Radio

The first question that most recreational boaters ask in relation to VHF radios is: “Do I have to have a VHF radio onboard?” The answer is--no. Any recreational vessel less than 20m (65.6 feet) in length is not required to have a VHF radio.

However, it is highly recommended that you have a radio onboard any boat. If you ever plan on being more than a mile off shore, or simply want to take important safety precautions, purchase a VHF marine radio.

"What about just using a cell phone?"

Cellular phones do provide the convenience, but it is only convenient if you can find service. You cannot use your cellular phone outside the United States (with certain plans).

On the other hand VHF marine radios were designed with safety in mind. Calls can be received not only by the Coast Guard, but by any and all surrounding boats which may be in position to give immediate assistance. A VHF marine radio also helps ensure that storm warnings and other urgent marine information broadcasts are received. Additionally, your VHF marine radio can be used anywhere in the United States or around the world. The VHF band frequencies are universal.

Convincing enough? It should be.

Any boater should know that the ideal communication median on the water is the VHF radio. Below is a comprehensive article on the usage and correct procedures for using a VHF radio.

The Lingo

Let's first clear up the boating and radio “lingo” that is used. It might sound funny and exciting on movies and TV shows, but believe it or not, communication is very standardized and respected when talking over the VHF radio. Listed here is the terminology to be familiar with (in a routine or non-emergency/non-distress):

  •  "Roger": Means only that "I understand your transmission." It does not mean that I agree or disagree with what you said.
  •  "Wilco": Means "I understand your transmission and I will comply with your request."
    (WIL = will, CO = comply)
  •  In spite of what you may have heard in old war movies, there is no such thing as "Roger Wilco"! It is either one (Roger) or the other (Wilco), but not both.
  •  "Affirmative": Means "Yes". Do not use words like "uh-huh", "Yup" or "Al-righty".
  •  "Negative": Means "No". Do not say "Negatory"; there is no such word.
  •  "Niner": The number nine (9) is very difficult to understand over the radio, so we use the word "Niner" in its place.
  •  "Over": Means "I have completed my statement and am awaiting your reply." Just say "Over", not "Do you copy?" or "Come on back!" or "holla-back"
  •  "Out": Means that "I have completed my communication and I am returning to the hailing channel." As with "Roger Wilco", there is no such thing as "Over and Out". It’s either one (Over) or the other (Out).

Along the same lines, here is the phonetic alphabet that should be used for radio transmissions in plain language or in code.

A - AlphaH - HotelO - OscarV - Victor
B - BravoI - IndiaP - PapaW - Whiskey
C - CharlieJ - JulietQ - Quebec X - X-ray
D - DeltaK - KiloR - RomeoY - Yankee
E - EchoL - LimaS - SierraZ - Zulu
F - Fox-trotM - MikeT - Tango
G - GolfN - NovemberU - Uniform

If you need to spell out a word you should say, "I spell" after pronouncing the word and then spell it using the phonetic alphabet. Numerals should be pronounced:

1-one 2-two 3-tree 4-fow er 5-fife 6-six 7-seven 8-eight 9-niner
Transmit numbers above 9, digit by digit.

How do I Use the Radio?

The standard preset for your radio should be channel 16. Channel 16 broadcasts to all marine vessels on that channel as well as the Coast Guard. All communication should initially go through channel 16, and then after initial contact, you can advise the other party to go to another agreed channel to continue a conversation. The Coast Guard announces storm warnings and other urgent marine information broadcasts on VHF channel 16 and 2182 kHz before making the broadcasts on VHF channel 22A and 2670 kHz respectively.

[Within the past few years channel 9 was also designated to be used as a hailing frequency in addition to channel 16 (which is both hailing and distress). However, this is in the First Coast Guard District only (waters off the coast of northern New Jersey, New York, and New England).

The standard procedure for a non-emergency call such as calling another vessel, marina, or restaurant to ask where to tie up for dinner, is as follows.

1. You should call the vessel, marina or restaurant on channel 9 or 16 in the following manner.
2. Name of station being called, spoken three times.
3. The words "THIS IS", spoken once.
4. Name of your vessel and call sign (if you have a station license) or boat registration number, spoken once.
5. The word "OVER".
6. Then you wait for the station being called to answer. Their answer should be in the same manner as your call.
7. Once answered you should suggest going to a working channel to carry on your conversation.
8. The word "OVER".
9. Wait for reply or confirmation from the station being called, switch to the working channel and repeat the process.

Distress Calls
You may only have seconds to send a distress call. Here's what you do. Transmit, in this order: 1. If you have an HF radiotelephone tuned to 2182 kHz, send the radiotelephone alarm signal if one is available. If you have a VHF marine radio, tune it to channel 16. Unless you know you are outside VHF range of shore and ships, call on channel 16 first.
2. Distress signal "MAYDAY", spoken three times.
3. The words "THIS IS", spoken once.
4. Name of vessel in distress (spoken three times) and call sign or boat registration number, spoken once.
5. Repeat "MAYDAY" and name of vessel, spoken once.
6. Give position of vessel by latitude or longitude or by bearing (true or magnetic, state which) and distance to a well-know landmark such as a navigational aid or small island, or in any terms which will assist a responding station in locating the vessel in distress. Include any information on vessel movement such as course, speed and destination.
7. Nature of distress (sinking, fire, etc.).
8. Kind of assistance desired.
9. Number of persons onboard.
10. Any other information which might facilitate rescue, such as length or tonnage of vessel, number of persons needing medical attention, color of hull, cabin, masts, etc.
11. The word "OVER"
Stay by the radio if possible. Even after the message has been received, the Coast Guard can find you more quickly if you can transmit a signal on which a rescue boat or aircraft can home in on.

*taken from www.boatsafe.com

Marine VHF Radio Channels- FREE DOWNLOAD!
We have included a complete chart of VHF radio channels and their uses on the sheet below. The chart summarizes a portion of the FCC rules -- 47 CFR 80.371(c) and 80.373(f)
You can download it in Excel format here:

Excel Radio Channel Chart

Hopefully this article offers a great guide and starting point for understanding VHF Marine Radios. Shop iboats.com for a huge selection of radios that can be installed on any boat!

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