Using a VHF radio (or otherwise called a marine radio) can be a lifesaving device for when you really need help on the water. Understanding how to use it and who to call may just save your life.
What exactly is a VHF radio?
It is a communication device for boaters. It is a means in which boaters can communicate with harbors, locks, bridges, marinas, other boaters and summoning rescue services. For seagoing vessels, these radios are permanently mounted, for kayakers – these are handheld devices. There are several makes and models available to the public, finding one which works best for you is a personal decision. Many Marine hand held models are waterproof – and some actually will float. Besides making calls, many of the models will have a weather channels, providing pretty accurate condition reports.Mainly used by kayakers who hit the open waters (Great Lakes/Oceans or any water monitored by water rescue services) – this should be an essential piece of equipment before heading out.
How do I use it?
Since each model is slightly different from the next – the basic functions are quite similar. It is always best to fully charge your VHF before heading out to the next paddle destination. As well as recharging it after you have returned. The battery life varies, but based on personal experiences can last for at least a week (unit turned on, moderate use during a 6-hour paddle day, and then turned off when not used). If possible, bring the charging base, or extra batteries to ensure you have enough juice for the trip. There is normally a knob to twist the unit on/off, and there is usually a ‘chirp’ heard as it powers on. There are numerous channels to use if you wish to communicate with others in your kayak group (once you pre-arrange this channel with each other during the pre-launch brief). Majority of regions within the US have specific channels which can be used freely by civilians – and others which are either commercial use, or predetermined agencies. Follow this link for channels in your area. Once a channel has been established for communications, bring the speaker towards your mouth and push and hold the transmit button, clearly and calmly send your message, release once done. Much like using a walkie-talkie.
Channel 16 is the channel to use if needing to make an emergency distress call. Normally, this channel should be monitored while on the water – as there may be important messages by the Coast Guard, or other boaters who need assistance. Traffic (communications) on this frequency has top priority, and should never be used as a ‘party line’.
Channel 9 is used mainly for ship to ship and ship to coast communications.
There is limited range on all VHF radios – and depending on many factors (transmitter power, topographical features, and your antenna height. VFH’s are basically a line of sight communication device – if there is any kind of interference between the two, the signal may not be heard. This may mean one may need to move to higher ground, or move out from a secluded cove to be able to transmit/receive.
How to communicate
If needing to transmit on channel 16, there are a few simple procedures to ensure you have proper procedures – and using proper lingo terms for the situation. Each one of these is repeated three times – to get the attention of other boaters.
Pan-Pan: This is a call in which a vessel is declaring an urgent situation which is not an immediate threat to either the vessel or the people on board. Examples of this, in which you may hear is: lost of navigational equipment, mechanical issues, need a tow, or any other non-life threatening emergencies.
Sécurité: This is an informational broadcast message (usually a USCG message to boaters), with additional information provided on another channel, which will be provided by the issuing department. An example of this could be a dense fog advisory, and vessels will alert others as they leave or enter a narrow channel or harbor. Or this could also be used to alert other vessels of large floating debris at a specific location.
Mayday: This is for serious events which suggests a potential loss of life, or a life-threatening situation. This will initiate immediate response by the Coast Guard and other agencies. Falsely reporting a Mayday, or using this channel as a open “chat channel” is strictly forbidden – and yes, they can triangulate your location if you abuse this channel.
Hopefully, there will never be a situation in which you will need to activate a Mayday call. Best advice I can provide to you is, practice making this call at home (without turning on the VHF) with another person. Print out the blue USCG form above and laminate it and bring it with you. Work with the nearest USCG station on your radio calls, or find groups who train with the USCG during joint missions. In one of the upcoming blogs, I will show a video how I had worked with a local USCG as we called in a Mayday and a “rescue” during a training mission.
For the Paddler Within….