Where has all the VHF chat­ter gone?


Power & Motor Yacht - - CONTENTS - BY JA­SON Y. WOOD

In a day and age for which the term “over­shar­ing” were seem­ingly in­vented, I find it amus­ing that peo­ple have clammed up. No, I’m not talk­ing about a sud­den and strik­ing lack of posts on so­cial me­dia, nor am I talk­ing about the flow of email, text mes­sages, voice­mails, and yes, even phone calls com­ing to a grind­ing halt. Those are all still at dan­ger­ously bloated lev­els.

What I’m talk­ing about is the VHF on the helm. Sim­ply put, beyond the level of close-quar­ters ma­rine chat­ter— think calls to bridge ten­ders, ma­rina staff, fuel docks, and yes, even an oc­ca­sional boat-to-boat call on 13 to make sure the watch on the bridge of that ship sees us—there’s a shock­ing lack of VHF traf­fic.

Have you no­ticed that? Power & Mo­to­ry­acht’s Se­nior Elec­tron­ics Ed­i­tor Ben El­li­son con­curs. “Cruis­ing down the East Coast to Mary­land it was very quiet,” he says with a chuckle. “I be­gan to won­der if the VHF wasn’t work­ing right.” Ev­ery mariner knows that the ra­dio check is a key start to ev­ery de­par­ture, yet so many peo­ple seem to say, I’m not go­ing that far, and I have my cell phone. I don’t know how your cell cov­er­age is, but mine fails of­ten enough to make me won­der if it even counts as a layer of pro­tec­tion.

“I’m not hear­ing a lot of chat­ter,” El­li­son con­tin­ues. “I kind of like that. I re­mem­ber com­ing from Maine through Long Is­land Sound and sud­denly hear­ing so much traf­fic on 16 or even 9—peo­ple call­ing each other—it was re­ally an­noy­ing and I didn’t want to hang out on those chan­nels. But it doesn’t seem true any­more.”

I spoke to a cou­ple skip­pers who have def­i­nite ideas about how they use their VHF sys­tems in con­junc­tion with the rest of their elec­tron­ics. One thing is for cer­tain, they know it’s there, and they know it’s ready for ac­tion.

Capt. Mark Maus is a fish­ing cap­tain who uses a Sim­rad RS90 VHF that’s con­nected to his helm sys­tem via a NMEA 2000 con­nec­tion, so he’s got chart­ing of AIS tar­gets that makes his VHF an even more pow­er­ful tool. In case you have for­got­ten, the au­to­matic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion sys­tem is a silent, ra­dio-based data sys­tem that col­lects data from other boats in the area also equipped with an AIS trans­ceiver. If you have the right kind of sys­tem, it also trans­mits data about your ves­sel to them. The data in­cludes the ves­sel name, hail­ing port, speed, course over ground, and more.

“We’re a reg­is­tered ves­sel with AIS, so we’re able to trans­mit our po­si­tion and re­ceive the sig­nal on our boat,” Maus says. “So any other ves­sels in our area that are AIS ves­sels can see me on their screens. And on my screen, I’m able to just touch that tar­get and hit my in­for­ma­tion page to get all the in­for­ma­tion about them.”

Since AIS is pri­mar­ily a col­li­sion-avoid­ance tech­nol­ogy—it makes it easy to call a boat by name on the VHF—I fig­ured Maus would use it mostly in low-vis­i­bil­ity con­di­tions in a crowded har­bor ap­proach, but he told me when it re­ally comes into play.

“I don’t worry about it, to be re­ally hon­est with you, in close quar­ters,” he says. “I uti­lize mine more when I’m off­shore. When you’re 120 to 200 miles off­shore, and you’re out there for three days deep-drop­ping or trolling or what­ever you’re do­ing—we set up at night for sword­fish—so we’ll set our zones up on our radar for a 3-mile zone and do the same 3-mile zone on our AIS. We like to keep track of the tankers, things like that out there,

and for safety rea­sons we use that tech­nol­ogy very heav­ily.” Speak­ing to the bridge watch on the tanker can sure let you re­lax on your fish­ing spot, know­ing that they see you and will not run you over. Even bet­ter, you have enough time to take eva­sive ac­tion if the watch on that ship doesn’t re­spond or seems to have fallen asleep.

Beyond safety, Mark Hen­der­son of Liq­uid Fire Fish­ing Team uses his VHF setup—con­sist­ing of two ICOM IC-M506s on his SeaVee 390 Z. When he fishes tour­na­ments all over the South­east­ern United States, from Louisiana to Mary­land, Hen­der­son takes care to set up his VHF to track what’s go­ing on in the tour­na­ment, and the rest of the fleet that may be fish­ing in­de­pen­dently of his event. “Most fish­er­men I know tune their ra­dios into tour­na­ment fish­er­men or com­mer­cial guys,” he says. “We set one ra­dio to mon­i­tor those chan­nels. And then we have one on scan which picks up traf­fic on other chan­nels that we know peo­ple use to com­mu­ni­cate. If some­one is talk­ing on another chan­nel it can be handy to learn how the bite might be some­where else, and key in­for­ma­tion like what depth the fish are at in their lo­ca­tion.” Hen­der­son also trans­mits on a low-power set­ting to al­low for eas­ier com­mu­ni­ca­tion with boats that are nearby.

ICOM also of­fers a scram­ble fea­ture, which is some­thing that’s been around a while; it al­lows Hen­der­son to speak to team­mates on other boats in a tour­na­ment with­out giv­ing in­for­ma­tion away to the fleet. “They have two dif­fer­ent chan­nel fre­quen­cies to talk pri­vately, so no one else can tell what you’re say­ing,” he says. “We use a chan­nel that most peo­ple don’t use, since we don’t want to be dis­re­spect­ful to other boaters. They can hear you but it’s scram­bled to the point where they can’t un­der­stand any­thing you’re say­ing. It’s a re­ally nice fea­ture when you’re co­or­di­nat­ing with a cou­ple other teams.”

While it’s great to have fea­tures such as these, VHF is the best so­lu­tion for talk­ing to the boats around you, the clos­est help avail­able if an emer­gency should hap­pen on your boat. You prob­a­bly don’t know any­one’s cell num­ber out there, if your phone even works.

“One thing that many peo­ple don’t re­al­ize: Res­cue 21, the Coast Guard com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem, has di­rec­tion find­ing,” El­li­son says. “They can gen­er­ally lo­cate you with that. So if you come up on 16 say­ing May­day May­day, they’re apt to hear you, and peo­ple will talk to you, and will know where you are even if you’re fum­bling around look­ing for your lat­i­tude and lon­gi­tude on your cell­phone.”

The bot­tom line: VHF is im­per­a­tive as a safety de­vice. If you don’t have an MMSI num­ber—find out how to get one for free at nav­cen.uscg.gov— get one and key it in to your GPS­con­nected VHF, then dou­ble check the num­ber you en­tered to make sure you have it right. Then, if you have peo­ple on your boat who don’t know what to do if you’re in­ca­pac­i­tated, make sure they know about the dis­tress but­ton. That way, they will be able to sum­mon help in an emer­gency. Be­cause there are some times when the peace and quiet at sea is too quiet. And you’re not ready to rest in peace.

Capt. Mark Hen­der­son’s ICOM VHFs take cen­ter stage.

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