Radio Active

Are VHFS still relevant? Absolutely, so put aside that cell phone and refresh your radio skills.


“Charles, are you OK?” A pause. “Charles?!” Although a stranger to us, the person’s panic was universal. Something’s wrong, said the look my partner, Phillip, and I shared before darting our eyes to the splashing in the water by the power cat next to us.

“Is he? OK?” Phillip and I implored, as we watched one diver shake the shoulders of the other. His strangled shout answered our inquiry. “I NEED HELP!” the diver cried.

We knocked over our coffee tumblers launching the dink off of Ubiquitous faster than ever and raced over to find Charles’ head lolling, his words garbled, before he lost consciousn­ess altogether and his dive buddy struggled to keep him afloat. While pulling his limp body from the water, the cat’s owner grabbed my shoulder. He pointed to a woman in his cockpit, her shaky hands struggling with a cell phone. “Please help my wife,” he pleaded. “She doesn’t know how to use the radio.” Doesn’t know how to use the radio?

Was I shocked? A little. But mostly, I felt sympathy for her. And trepidatio­n. What if her husband had a heart attack on passage? Or he fell overboard at night? She already looked terrified. Not knowing how to summon help on the water could only add to her fear. Her voice was all nerves and stutters as she tried to respond to the 911 operator who asked, “Ma’am, where are you?” Not ashore, I thought as I went to assist her. We were in the middle of a mooring field. No ambulance could help us out here.

In the debrief, Phillip and I both agreed, the “diver down” should have been hailed over the VHF immediatel­y, in addition to the call to 911. Why? Because it’s like screaming “Emergency!” to a room of 20, versus one. Over the radio, anyone within a 15-mile radius is alerted and can offer help.

What if you’re out of cell phone range, or the 911 responders don’t have water rescue capabiliti­es? What if there’s a boat nearby with a doctor aboard? Or, as in this case, a marina with a fast water taxi they deployed in response to the emergency call we placed on Channel 16. Our ability to alert the entire local marine neighborho­od—rather than a single dispatcher ashore—likely saved Charles, who had to be Life-flighted to a hyperbaric chamber.

But I understand that terrified woman’s first instinct. We are all so dependent on our cell phones these days that the VHF radio may seem like an archaic device, like trying to make a gramophone play. However, when it may be the only tool capable of saving human life on the water, it’s worth keeping the rust off. In a maritime emergency, the cell phone is simply no substitute for the radio.

And the VHF is much more than a lifeline. It’s phone-a-friend. It’s intel. It’s entertainm­ent. On the water, it’s connection. You’re no longer alone out there. If you’re new to sailing, or if you just need some refreshing as you head into the sailing season, here are some tips on what to know and what to look forward to.

What to Know

On your own boat or any boat you board, find the DC panel and know how to turn

the VHF on. If you’re using a handheld in the cockpit, make sure it is charged and turned on.

Tune to Channel 16, which is constantly monitored by the Coast Guard and used for hailing and emergencie­s. Leave it on. Chances are you won’t have to use it, but being able to listen keeps you informed of what’s happening on the water nearby, and if anyone is trying to contact you, you’ll hear them.

VHFS operate on low or high power, and you can switch between them. Learn how to do this and how to identify which one you’re on. Generally low power is fine for everyday use; you’ll want to be on high power if you ever need to call for help.

Remember it’s not a cell phone. Your call is public. Anyone within a 15-mile radius tuned to your channel can hear you.

Be hyper-efficient with your time on air because no one can speak over you when your mic button is pressed, and vice versa. This is particular­ly true when speaking on Channel 16, as it needs to remain as open as possible for reporting emergencie­s.

This isn’t a place for chatting; it’s a place to make your intentions or needs known quickly and succinctly.

Know the working channels and how to switch between them. Channels 13 and 9 are typically bridge traffic—i.e., requesting bridge openings and informatio­n. Channel 22A is where the Coast Guard will often direct mariners for more informatio­n about a hazard or emergency. Open channels such as 68, 69, 71, or 72 can be used for hailing marinas or non-emergency conversati­ons between sailors.

You can use channel 16 to hail someone, but then you should immediatel­y switch to an open channel to communicat­e further (unless you’re calling the Coast Guard, in which case, do what they ask you to in terms of comms). Here’s a dialogue to use:

“Chanty, Chanty, Chanty, uitous.”

“Ubiquitous, answer on 68.”

“This is Ubiquitous, this is this is


Chanty. Switch and switching to 68.”

The VHF is a great way to stay in touch with vessels close to you, to communicat­e your intentions and learn theirs, left. Annie works with the VHF aboard her boat, right.

Then you switch from 16 to 68 and can chat without clogging the emergency channel. If you’re not familiar with switching between channels, practice it ahead of time with friends on the water so you don’t have to think twice about it in an emergency.

To make sure your radio is working, conduct a radio check like so: “Radio check. This is S/V Ubiquitous in Narraganse­tt Bay.”

Do this on channels 9 or 13. Do not use 16. Don’t be that person.

Probably one of the most important, and frequent, uses of the VHF is to hail ships, tugs, and other commercial traffic if you are in close quarters (say, transiting a canal) or it appears that your closest point of approach is too close. Give them a call on 16, move the conversati­on to a working channel, and make sure they understand your intentions and you understand theirs. They will appreciate this.

In an Emergency

There are three levels of emergency notificati­on on channel 16:

• Mayday, which is a life-threatenin­g emergency, such as someone having a heart attack on board, or your boat is sinking or on fire;

• Pan-pan (pronounced pahn-pahn), which is an urgent situation that could become life-threatenin­g, such as a boat that’s lost power or steering, or there’s a medical or equipment condition happening that could get worse;

• Sécurité (securi-tay), which is a safety announceme­nt advising of hazards to navigation, such as a bridge that’s broken or a giant log someone has reported. This one is also used by larger vessels when they are getting underway or want to notify nearby mariners of their movements. It’s typical for ships, for instance, transiting the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis to issue a sécurité giving their course, speed, and ETA to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, where the channel is very restricted for big ships.

One way to signal an emergency is to use the “DISTRESS” button most modern radios have (covered with a protective red flap) that is programmed with the vessel’s MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) number and connected to the chartplott­er’s GPS. When depressed, it automatica­lly transmits your vessel’s location (latitude and longitude), MMSI number, and distress call to the Coast Guard.

Or, on channel 16, with your VHF set to high power, speak clearly and say “Mayday” or “Pan-pan”—depending on the urgency of your situation—three times. Then report your vessel’s name, your position (be as specific as possible, ideally with latitude

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