General Information Safety @ Sea Fun Stuff Resources



Using Your VHF

Modern VHFs    

Modern VHFs are quite amazing. I have three Standard Horizon models (HX270S, HX350S, and HX850S), two of which are shown here. The HX350S has been the workhorse (on the left), with the HX270S as an excellent backup. I recently purchased the HX850S (on the right), which includes a GPS and DSC. All three are waterproof and submersible.

There's nothing wrong with other makes, such as ICOM. I happen to own (and like) Standard Horizon, which have always served me well.

Primary Uses

There are four primary uses for the marine VHF radio:
  • Safety
    That is essentially the handling of three different types of messages: Distress, Urgency, and Safety.
  • Operations
    This is contacting the necessary agents to get your boat from one place to another. Such as: lock masters, bridge tenders, gas docks, marinas for docking, harbor pilots.
  • Commerce
    This is the actual conduct of business on the water and usually means base stations talking with the vessels.
  • Public Correspondence
    This is normally with a marine operator.

If you want to see a list of all the official channels and their primary uses, check out the USCG web page here.

Maintaining a Watch on Channel 16 (and 13)

All vessels must guard, maintain a watch on, and listen to Channel 16.

You should also be aware that tankers don't necessarily monitor Channel 16. They do monitor Channel 13, however. If you're unsure of what's going on, you can hail VTS on Channel 14.

Channel 16 is a calling and emergency channel. DO NOT HAVE CONVERSATIONS ON THIS CHANNEL. The only exception is the Coast Guard when working a MAYDAY.

Channel 16 is very busy, so don't use it unless there is an emergency. ALWAYS listen before you key your microphone. After you are sure you're not going to "step" on anyone, you can make your call. Do not blow into the mic., just make your call. Your initial call to a boat cannot exceed 30 seconds.

Bozo Boater Bozo Boater Bozo Boater
This is Lucy Lemon Drop 2 OVER.

If Bozo Boater does not answer, wait two minutes and hail them again. If they still don't respond, hail them again after another two minutes. If still no response, you must wait 15 minutes before you hail the same boat again. Saying "negative contact" is incorrect and wastes air time. If you are successful in contacting Bozo Boater, switch to a working channel.

Your radio must have Channel 16, 06, and one working channel. You should also have 22A (pronounced "twenty-two alpha"), which is used by the Coast Guard as their working channel with the public. Channel 06 is used for SARs - safety messages between ships.

Remember, keep your radio on and tuned to Channel 16 unless you're using another channel for communications with a boat or base station.

Using Hi vs. Low Power

Decide when and where to use hi vs. low power when transmitting. If you're close to the target, there's no reason to blast out your signal to the maximum range of your radio.

Working Channels

The working channels for non-commercial use are: 68, 69, 71, 72, and 78. However, if you listen to the marine radio for a while, you will notice that certain commercial interests use certain channels. This is because base stations must be FCC licensed. The license is for a specific frequency or channel. For example, while the towing and salvage companies don't own the working channels they switch you to, they do use them to help boaters in trouble. If you could use channels they don't use as first choice for your working channel, it would be appreciated. After you switch to a working channel, FCC rules state that you must limit your conversation to three minutes.

False Signaling

Transmitting a false MAYDAY is a dangerous violation of FCC rules that could net you a $5,000 fine. If search and rescue units are sent out, the perpetrator is responsible for their costs in addition to the fine. Obscenity, profanity or indecent language is also a direct FCC violation. You are subject to a $10,000 fine and/or two years in jail. Isn't it interesting that a false MAYDAY, which is much more dangerous than someone cursing on the air is only a $5,000 fine and no mention of jail time?

Procedure Words

You are strongly urged to use "procedure" words - usually referred to as "prowords". These help to shorten the length of the message and eliminate confusion. It is not just effective to use "over", "out", "roger" and "wilco". It's practical. The same way, using the phonetic alphabet helps when there may be confusion understanding letters: B and D, C and E, M and N, etc. Take a look at your phonetic chart.

Remember to use OVER when you expect a reply. You use OUT when you are finished. ROGER means, "yes I understand". WILCO means "both Roger and I will do that or I will comply". AFFIRMATIVE is "yes" and NEGATIVE is "no".


Now, let's talk about the prime purpose of the marine radio - Safety. There are are three different safety messages:


MAYDAY is always broadcasted on Channel 16. MAYDAY means a vessel and/or person is threatened by grave or imminent danger and requires immediate assistance. A MAYDAY has priority over all other signals. This might be a fire, sinking, person lost overboard.

Print a copy of the Marine Distress Communications Form included with this article. Make sure you fill in as much as you can of that sheet prior to every time you get underway. You may even want to laminate it to keep it readable. Post it near your radio and make sure everyone aboard knows how to call for help.

Below is an example of a MAYDAY call.

Call on Channel 16.


This is Lucy Lemon Drop 2 Lucy Lemon Drop 2 Lucy Lemon Drop 2


We are at position 27 57 N; 82 53 W, about three miles west of Clearwater Pass. We are rapidly taking on water from a hole in our bow.

There are three people on board. Lucy Lemon Drop 2 is a 20' Yellow Shamrock with white trim. We have lots of antennas and a radar dome. We are going to lose radio contact soon when the batteries go underwater.

We'll be listening on Channel 16. This is Lucy Lemon Drop 2 OUT


PAN PAN (pronounced "pahn pahn") is also transmitted on Channel 16. It is used when the safety of a vessel or person is in jeopardy. Man overboard is sent as a PAN PAN. This is also used by the Coast Guard to alert other boaters about an overdue boat. This signal has priority over all others except MAYDAY. This is an example:


This is the United States Coast Guard, Station Sand Key. There is a report of an overturned vessel at position 28 00 North 082 50 West with three people in the water. All mariners are requested to keep a sharp lookout, report all findings to the United States Coast Guard and assist where possible. This is United States Coast Guard, Station Sand Key out.

SECURITE (pronounced "say cure a tay") is transmitted on Channel 16 and then switched to Channel 22A (pronounced "twenty-two alpha"). It is used for messages concerning the safety of navigation or giving important weather warnings.

Examples: casino cruise ship traveling in/out of Clearwater Pass, Daily Local Notice to Mariners, something wrong with Clearwater Memorial Bridge, missing or damaged Aid to Navigation.

If the message is short, don't change to Channel 22A (pronounced "twenty-two alpha"), since it will actually take up more air time.

Here's an example:

On Channel 16:


This is the United States Coast Guard, Station Sand Key. For Important Coast Guard Marine Information Broadcast, listen to Channel 22A (pronounced "twenty-two alpha"). OUT.

On Channel 22A (pronounced "twenty-two alpha"):


This is the United States Coast Guard, Station Sand Key. The Clearwater Memorial Bridge is experiencing difficulties and will not open until further notice. This is the United States Coast Guard, Station Sand Key OUT.

SEELONCE MAYDAY OR SEELONCE DISTRESS is used to impose silence upon any radio station interfering with these distress calls. Use SEELONCE FINEE when distress or urgent traffic is terminated.

Do I need a VHF license?

Interesting question. Yes and no....

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 permits recreational boaters to have and use a VHF marine radio, EPIRB, and marine radar without having an FCC ship station license. Boaters traveling on international voyages, having an HF single sideband radiotelephone or marine satellite terminal, or required to carry a marine radio under any other regulation (e.g., on boats 20m long or larger). must still carry an FCC ship station license.

Some vessels are required to have an FCC license. These include:

  1. Vessels that use MF/HF single side-band radio, satellite communications or telegraphy
  2. Power Driven Vessels over 20 meters in length
  3. Vessels used for commercial purposes including:
    • Vessels Documented for commercial use (including commercial fishing vessels)
    • CG inspected vessels carrying more than 6 passengers
    • Tow boats more than 7.8 meters in length
    • Vessels of more than 100 tons certified to carry at least one passenger.
    • Cargo Ships over 300 gross tons
    • Any vessel, including a recreational vessel, on an international voyage.

Those not exempted by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 must still have an FCC ship station license. A ship station license application is made on FCC Form 506, which can be found on the FCC website

Don't Use a CB Radio or CB Language

Prowords are important, but there is appropriate language that should be used. If you want to be seen as a rank amateur:
  • Use OVER and OUT together.
  • Ask the Coast Guard for a radio check. (As a matter of fact, call the towing company of your choice directly on their working channel - don't even use Channel 16 unless you don't get a response on their channel. If you don't know which channels they're on, just listen to the radio for a few minutes and you'll hear less informed boaters being told to switch to the individual company's working channel.)

CB lingo is never acceptable. The use of "10" codes and expressions such as these have no place on a marine radio:

  • Come Back
  • Got a Copy?
  • Got Your Ears On?
  • Are You On This Side?
  • That's a Big 10-4 Good Buddy
  • What's your 10-20?

Finally, while you may take aboard your CB radio, don't count on it as safety equipment. A CB does not meet the needs of a boater for reliable, efficient communications manned by people who understand the problems of mariners, the limitations of travelling on the seas and are ready to assist in the event of an emergency. Getting help from a trucker on US 19 probably won't do you much good. A CB radio has a weak signal and has overcrowded frequencies. In addition, the Coast Guard does not routinely monitor CB channels.

Bring your cell phone, but don't rely on it for emergencies

Cell phones are great. Everyone has one, but they're not that great for emergencies on the water. While you might get a good signal, and you might be able to contact the Coast Guard (via a patch from the police), they'll have no way of finding your position, unlike the triangulation that's possible when you use a VHF.

Better yet, bring a hand-held VHF and your cell phone.