Using a marine radio may appear to be pretty straightforward, but you have to know some rules, procedures and the most important frequencies to fully utilize this critical communication device.
One of the most important things to remember is that channel 16 is the International Hailing and Distress Frequency. This channel is used for calling and distress messages.
If you hail another vessel or shore station and establish communications on channel 16 you will need to promptly switch to another frequency so you don’t tie up channel 16. Before using channel 16, turn it on and listen to make sure it is not being used.
Know this: VHF radio conversations can be heard by every other boater within range that is tuned to that channel. Regulations state that communication via the VHF radio should be for purposes of boat operation, so you should not be rehashing the key plays of yesterday’s big college football game or asking your buddy if he has seen any good movies lately.
Before you can communicate with your marine VHF radio you will need to make sure you have the correct channel group selected, there are three, US, International, and Canadian. Some channels, like channel 16 are the same frequency on all groups, but others are not. Having the same channel group selected on your radio as on those you are trying to communicate with is important.
Using a Marine Radio—To Make a Voice Distress Call
If you are in distress, use the words MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY to get the attention of others listening on the channel. When you make contact with the Coast Guard or another vessel or shore station be ready to provide your position, a description of your vessel, the number of people on board, and the problem. Speak clearly. Speak slowly. Only use the word MAYDAY when someone’s life or the vessel is in immediate danger.
Making an Urgent Voice Call
What about serious situations that are not life-threatening? Use the urgency call attention getter, PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN rather than a MAYDAY call, then proceed with your urgent message.
Using a Marine Radio—To Call Another Vessel
To call a another vessel you can try to initiate communications on channel 16. You would say the vessel name three times followed by your vessel name and then wait for a response. If you dont get an answer trying a second time is justified. However, if after a second try you fail to connect, wait some length of time before making another attempt at reaching the vessel. Once you establish communications on channel 16, pick a working channel and switch immediately.
Other Important Channels
Other important channels include 22A, which is the channel the Coast Guard uses to broadcast weather warnings, navigational hazards and other vital facts. If you establish contact with the Coast Guard on channel 16 you may be asked to switch to channel 22A.
Channel 13 serves as the navigation and piloting channel. Use it at bridges, for instance, to request an opening or to communicate your course to a nearby boat. It’s unnecessary to use channel 16 first and then switch to channel 13. For ship-to-ship talk for safety communication (used mainly in situations involving search and rescue), channel 6 is used. Don’t call the Coast Guard for a radio check. It is illegal.
Non-commercial ship-to-ship communications channels are 68, 69, 71, 72, and 78A. Channel 9 was previously in this category but is now an alternate calling (but not distress) channel.
There are other channels you should know about. Weather channel numbers are preceded with a WX and your radio will likely have 10 of them, not all will receive a signal so you should investigate which ones broadcast weather information for your area.
Also, should you want to connect to a land line telephone, operators can be found on channels 84 through 88, but you should be aware this can be a costly way to communicate.
Digital Selective Calling
An article about using a marine radio would be incomplete without a description of Digital Selective Calling, or DSC. In an emergency situation, with a press of a button, usually located on the radio face or microphone under a translucent red cover, your DSC radio will send an automated digital distress signal that consists of your position and your MMSI number to other DSC-equipped vessels and rescue agencies within VHF radio range.
To get the most out of DSC you will need to interface your marine VHF radio and your GPS chartplotter. There are many other advantages that DSC offers, including the ability to send a digital call directly to another DSC-equipped vessel or shore station.