VHF Radio Basics


VHF RadioNote: All rules and procedures are for US waters, controlled by the Coast Guard. However, you will find that in the non-US Caribbean waters, procedures are clearly more relaxed, to say the least. New Article

Surely you've heard before, while on charter and at anchor, sipping your favorite beverage, those unnerving exchanges on Ch. 16 on your VHF between kids simply playing with the VHF on a nearby boat, or those never ending conversations between 2 boats parties discussing plans for dinner ashore. Meanwhile, some other boat, that really needs to use the VHF, has to wait until those petty chats end.

We thought it would be a good idea to put together a refresher about making a good use of your VHF on charter.

All charter boats are equipped with a fixed VHF usually located down below at the nav station. Should you consider buying a hand-held VHF (which I did several years ago)? It is certainly not a necessity but a matter of personal judgement depending if you are a frequent charterer/boater or not. Personally, I find it extremely convenient on charter if I want to communicate with my boat when I am moving about in the dinghy, and also when I need to communicate without having to constantly go down below from the cockpit.

What is the VHF for?

Only vessels over 65-1/2 feet are required by the Coast Guard to carry a VHF, but most sailboats today carry a VHF, and certainly ALL charter boats. The VHF is:

  • A very important information and safety equipment to have aboard. It is essential for communicating with other boats or water facilities.

  • Your best source for weather bulletins and marine advisories. In the Bahamas for example, the useful Cruisers Net has created a very valuable network for cruisers and charterers alike, using only the VHF.

  • Your best safety line to get help, from the charter base or else, should you have any kind of emergency, whether mechanical or medical. It can also be a way to obtain navigational guidance if you're unfamiliar with a particular area.

  • A tool to make telephone calls to shore. In the Virgin Islands for example, call VI Radio on ch.16 and ask them to place a phone call for you. When they have the party on the phone, they will connect you via the VHF which you will use as a phone. However remember that the conversations from a VHF to a land phone can be heard by anyone listening to the channel you're on. So no privacy here!

  • A cheap entertainment tool: just listen to it in some Caribbean islands and I guarantee you some hilarious or dramatic moments! However, it is much less laughable when some idiot out there is misusing the VHF when, at same time, an important weather bulletin announcement is missed.

Determining the Range of a VHF

As a rough guide, your charter boat VHF has a range of about 10 miles if not obstructed by high hills. A handheld VHF will have a range of about 2 to 4 miles depending on the geographic configuration.

How to Use VHF


In general, you should stay on standby on Channel 16 at all times. The US Coast Guard monitors 16 for distress calls, and also to broadcast storm warnings and other crucial marine information or warnings. And by the way, when the VHF is turned on, it will tune automatically to Ch.16. Remember: Ch. 16 is the international calling and distress frequency, and it should be used essentially for that purpose. Usually, charter companies have a permanent working channel, which they use to communicate with charterers without having to call on ch. 16. Ask instructions at the skippers briefing before the start of your cruise. Many people think that every time they step on their boat they need to ask for a radio check. This is rarely needed—perhaps after installing a new system—and should certainly not be done on channel 16. So if you want to do it, do it on the charter company's working channel.

Hailing (or Raising)

Other than being in standby, Channel 16 is for hailing and distress purposes only, which in some areas, seems to be a long-forgotten rule! So make your initial hailing call clear and short!

The correct hailing procedure is to state one to three times in succession the name of the boat or station you are calling, followed once or twice by the name of your boat, then "Over." Any additional words are unnecessary and incorrect procedure. Once your party replies, you instruct him/her to switch to a working channel and clear out of channel 16.

Example: Vessel Moondance: "Windstar, Windstar, Windstar ... this is Moondance"
Note: Wait for a reply. If you do not get a reply within 15/20 seconds, you may try a second and third time. If no response, try again later, but do not stay on Ch 16 calling endlessly.

Vessel Windstar: "Moondance, this is Windstar, over"
Note: The word "over" is necessary to signal you have finished your sentence, since only one person at a time can talk.

Vessel Moondance: "Windstar, switch to channel 68, over"
Note: It is usually considered safer to announce double-digit numbers one at a time. Here, instead of saying "channel sixty eight", say: "Channel six eight". Ch. 68 is one of the working channels you may use.

Vessel Windstar: "Six eight over"

Vessel Windstar (on Ch.68): "Moondance, this is Windstar"

Vessel Moondance: "Windstar, bla bla bla... ."

When finished:
Vessel Moondance: "Moodance out, back to 16"

Examples of what you should NOT do:
"Passing Wind ... hey ... Passing Wind ... YOO HOO!! ... you guys out there? Hellooooooo"
Or "Helloooo ... anybody out there?"

Note: Any non-emergency sustained conversation on Ch. 16 will usually trigger strong language from other boats or from the USCG station. Also, clogging the channel or using it for a hoax, false MAYDAY or something similar, are a felony and subject to serious fines. Similarly, foul language user may get fined severely and even jailed. And the USCG will find the culprits.

Sending a Distress Call

You may only have a very short time to send a distress call. Here is the procedure in this order:

  1. Tune your VHF to channel 16.
  2. Repeat the word "MAYDAY," three times.
  3. "This is (name of boat )" Repeat boat name three times.
  4. Describe your boat, such as, size, rig type, color and tell the number of persons aboard.
  5. Indicate the nature of distress (sinking, fire, etc.)
  6. Give position by latitude and longitude or by bearing and distance to a well-known landmark or navigational aid, or in any terms that will assist a responding station in locating the vessel in distress. Include any information, such as, vessel course, speed, and destination.
  7. Indicate the kind of assistance desired.
  8. End with "over."

If you do not receive any answer, repeat your call every 2 minutes.

Note: If you are NOT in a life-threatening situation but still are in real need of assistance, use the same procedure as above, EXCEPT that in step 2, you replace the word MAYDAY by the the words "Pan Pan" (pronounce PAHNN PAHNN).

Hearing a Distress Call

When you hear one, give first the Coast Guard or the local equivalent a chance to respond. If they do not, and if you are in position to help, answer the distress call, get the details of the emergency and figure out what to do. If they do respond or if you're not in position to help, just listen and do not press your mike button.

A Few Tips

  • Other members of the charter party should definitely learn how to use the VHF. You never know: something might happen that could leave the skipper unable to take charge. To this effect, a) give a crash course with a demo on how to switch channels, transmit and listen to everyone aboard; b) post a short, simple list of instructions, including proper channels to use, next to the radio.

  • For boat owners: The name you choose for your boat should be easily understood in radio communications. This is an aspect often overlooked. If you choose a suite of impossible ancient French words known only to a professional linguist, you've got a problem. You could spend the rest of your days on the water repeating that name to the person at the other end of the transmission trying to figure out what you're saying, let alone an emergency call! It is cool to be original, but I mean, really, be serious, OK?

  • Always listen before you start transmitting to ascertain a clear channel. If others are talking, wait until they're finished. Everyone will appreciate your courtesy.

  • Before calling another vessel on a hailing frequency, be sure in advance that you have a free working channel available to switch to.

  • Be sure to depress the button on the microphone before you start to speak. It's common for transmissions to be truncated at the beginning or at the end because the sender does not depress the button in sync with his speech.

  • Remember that the only legal channels that boaters can use to communicate among themselves are: 9, 16, 68, 69, 71, 72, and 78. All other channels are designated for other uses (see below).

  • Lastly, as usual, use your common sense, proper etiquette and remember that VHF use is not a game.

VHF Radio Channels and Uses

A sailor needs to be only concerned with a few channels. Legally, boaters are not allowed to use many of the channels. The table below lists the important channels and what you need to know about them. See complete USCG rules.

  • Ch. 16 Safety and hailing Emergency mayday calls. Monitor ch.16 at all times. Hail other vessels on 16, then switch to a working channel. Emergency calls always made on ch.16.

  • Ch. 22a U.S. Coast Guard operations channel.

  • Ch 13 Navigation and piloting. Locks and drawbridges on the ICW. (Florida and South Carolina bridges on ch 9.) Commercial ship-to-ship. Good channel to monitor (along with 16) when entering or exiting a busy commercial port.

  • Ch. 9, 68, 69, 71, 72, 78, 82 Working channels for boaters. General-use working channels for boat-to-boat and boat-to-shore communication. After establishing contact on 16, switch to one of these frequencies. Channel 9 is used for hailing in New England, northern New Jersey, New York, and for bridges in South Carolina and Florida.

  • Ch 7, 24-28, 84 Marine telephone