“Breaker 1-9, this here’s the Rubber Duck, do ya’ got a copy on me Pig Pen, Come on?” I thought I’d start off this blog with a hip, pop-culture reference…from a C.W. McCall song about trucking…released in the 1970s… Yeah, maybe I need to reconsider my hip, pop-culture street cred?
Most boaters are familiar, at least in passing, with the VHF Marine Radio. It is a vital piece of equipment found on all commercial vessels and most large pleasure craft, like houseboats. It is somewhat rarer to see it on smaller runabouts, ski boats, and PWCs; but I would hope that if they are traveling outside the range of immediate assistance, that they are carrying a handheld VHF Radio. I personally would never consider leaving the dock without this critical piece of safety equipment, especially somewhere like Lake Powell where cell phone coverage and other communications are unreliable at best.
I’m always surprised, but I’ve spoken with many houseboaters that consider it extraneous; one gentleman told me that he didn’t even know if his worked as he’d never used it before. They are always somewhat surprised, or maybe just annoyed, when I start extoling the virtues of having and knowing how to properly use your VHF. I thought I might put fingers to keys in an attempt to spread the good word via this blog. I’ve seen people approach the VHF with anything from fear and trepidation to reckless abandon; ideally you’ll fall somewhere in between.
I’ve had countless hours communicating on the VHF as I stood watch on the ship, I went through untold hours of training that involved simulating bridge-to-bridge communication, I completed the GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety Systems) course which came with an FCC license, and I even briefly had my own call sign assigned to me (WZ2583, which corresponded to the Field Operations Officer on the NOAA Ship Rainier). However, I still get a little bit nervous every time I go to key the mike on my VHF; there’s a little part of me that flashes back to being that Ensign on the bridge with a death grip on the mike worrying that I would say something dumb and make a fool of myself…broadcasting my error to every mariner in a 10-mile radius. As with anything, it gets easier with repetition, but it’s still a good idea to think over what you’re going to say before you key that mike, you don’t want to make the mistake of being too casual; there are rules in the land of the FCC.
I’m not going to go into great detail about the underlying theory of VHF Radios or how they function. I could bore you to death by talking about how VHF stands for Very High Frequency and operates in a frequency range between 156.000-MHz and 162.025-MHz, but my wife insists that’s not the best way to write a blog…or as she put it, “a blog that people actually want to read.” There are three things that I think are worth mentioning though and because I’m a nerd I’m going to go into detail, but feel free to skip it and just look at the bold statement for the takeaway:
I should also mention Digital Selective Calling, or DSC, but I’m going to focus on VHF voice communications in this post and DSC is deserving of its own blog post as I couldn’t hope to do it justice without going off on a huge tangent (what’s new?). Instead, I will simply acknowledge it as part of your VHF that you’re probably not using to full potential. Stay tuned for an exciting future DSC post.
So what more could you possibly need to know about your VHF Radio? Lots, but I’ll limit it to some things to avoid on the radio and radio etiquette for routine calls.
So let me start by saying that the VHF Marine Radio does indeed have a set of rules and failure to follow these rules can get you into trouble with the FCC and other federal authorities (USCG, NPS, etc.), but the real thing to be concerned about is that when you don’t follow correct radio etiquette I, or someone like me, am probably listening…and silently judging. So, here, in the order in which I thought of them, are my top five things to avoid with the VHF:
That’s a lot of don’ts, so now for some dos. Your VHF is your link to the outside world; for this reason, I recommend keeping it on and monitoring Channel 16 at all times, but at a minimum you should be listening to it when you are underway. The best tool in the world won’t do you any good switched off and sitting in the closet. I guess that’s do number one, turn your radio on and use it. Not only can it be a life line in times of emergency, it is extremely handy in everyday life. You can tune to the weather bands for the regional forecast for the next few days, NPS makes general safety and informational broadcasts (like the pump out station at Bullfrog is closed), and you can call your small boat and ask them to pick up more beer on their way back from the marina. Now, in the reverse order I thought of them, here are things you should know about using your radio:
So that’s all well and good, but how would a standard VHF exchange go? Here’s an example.
ON CHANNEL 16:
Serenity: “Duck, Duck, Duck. This is Serenity, Serenity, Serenity on Channel 1-6. Over.”
Duck: “Station Calling, this is Duck. Go Ahead.”
S: “Duck, this is Serenity. Want to shift to Channel 6-9? Over.”
D: “Serenity, Duck. Copy shifting to channel 6-9. Out”
CHANNEL 69 (designated for non-commercial traffic)
S: “Duck, Duck, Duck. This is Serenity on Channel 6-9. Over.”
D: “Serenity, Duck. Go Ahead.”
S: “Duck, Serenity. We are critically low on cheesy-poofs. Can you pick some up at Halls on the way back? Over.”
D: “Serenity, Duck. Rodger, we’ll get cheesy-poofs on our way back. Did you see that awesome post about the VHF Marine Radio on The Captain’s Blog? Over.”
S: “Duck, Serenity. I’m reading it right now; thought I would take a little afternoon siesta. Over.”
D: “Serenity, Duck. Sounds good; see you in about 30-minutes. Over.”
S: “Duck, Serenity. Copy, see you in 30-mintues. Serenity shifting back to channel 1-6. Serenity, Out.”
You could have easily dispensed with all the “Duck, Serenity” and “Serenity, Duck”, but they were left in for example of formal communication. Also, as I said earlier, the jargon isn’t strictly required, but you might find that used properly it can help smooth out communications. For those of you waiting for a duck, duck, goose joke…sorry, that’s just beneath me.
Now go out there and use your VHF with renewed confidence and, “keep doin’ it to it, like Pruitt used to do it…to it…” Ah, never mind the pop-culture references. Until next time, here’s wishing you fair winds and following seas.
Brent Pounds has over a decade of experience in the maritime industry and has been involved in recreations boating since he was a child. See the About section for more detailed information.