VHF Usage For Dummy's
By Paul Donoski

I'm no dummy, but in my home library, I have all the "Dummy" how-to books including Kayaking for Dummies.  The one important book I don't have is "How to use a VHF radio for Dummies".  So, I decided to write my own.  VHF stands for Very High Frequency - that's because they transmit at 156.025 to 163.275 MHz.  That's a pretty big and fast number. It doesn't mean you have to talk that fast when using your radio.

VHF vs. Cell Phone

Let me start by dispelling a belief that a cell phone is just as good as a VHF radio for marine emergency use.

  1. In an emergency you may not be in a cell phone call area.
  2. A cell phone is limited to party to party transmission while a VHF transmission can be received by any number of active VHF receivers (such as near-by boaters).
  3. A 911 call can be misdirected to a land based rescue team resulting in critical delays.
  4. A cell phone has no direction finding capabilities like a radio signal.
  5. With a cell phone, rescuers  may not be able to reach you for critical information.
  6. With any water exposure you can lose your cell. A good portable VHF with a JIS7 Submersible Rating is extremely reliable. I wear mine on my PFD without protection and after 3 years it is still like new.

With cell phone versus VHF radio out of the way let’s get into what features most radios have and how you use them.
  1. A broad spectrum of radio channels dedicated for different communication purposes from distress calls to boat to boat messages.
  2.  A rechargeable battery pack providing 10 to 15 hours of operation on a full charge.  Radios 3 years or older have Ni-Cad batteries while newer ones now have metal-hydride or lithium batteries which hold greater charges and have a better life.
  3. A charging stand that recharges your radio with household voltage.
  4. A battery life indicator.
  5. Selectable transmit power of 5 and 1 watt. 5 watts is normally reserved for distress calls and drains down the charge significantly faster than 1 watt transmission.
  6.  A selectable lighted display for nighttime use.
  7. Reception of NOAA weather channels and storm alerts.
  8. Push-To-Talk (PTT) switch which activates radio transmission.
  9. A squelch control for setting the threshold of random noise reception.
  10. An auxiliary non-rechargeable battery pack as a backup for long trips.

Water And Your Radio

Kayaking is a water sport and most of the time you are only inches from the surface of the water or you can be  below the surface.  “Water-resistant” or “waterproof” is only safe if you put your radio in a electronic device dry bag.  This means taking your radio out of the bag to use it.  In an emergency I don’t want to deal with a bag or the risk of losing radio operation due to submersion.  Most if not all of the better radios I have seen lately have the JIS7 submersible rating.  For a kayaker this is the only way to go.

Making Calls On The VHF

With radio on and paddling along you should be monitoring channel 16 or 9. Channel 16 is for marine emergency and distress calls.  In our area Coast Guard District 1, urgent marine info such as storm warnings are broadcast on channel 9.  All VHF radios have a button that tunes in the Coast Guard monitored channel 16.

Making A Distress Call On Channel 16
  1. Make sure it is a real emergency situation. A capsize in a ConnYak group paddle doesn’t normally qualify.  A serious medical emergency on the water definitely would qualify.
  2. Depress the PTT switch.
  3. Clearly say three times "MAYDAY".
  4. Say "THIS IS" spoken once and then identity of kayaks spoken three times. E.g.: two sea kayaks, one red over white and the other yellow over white.
  5. Give your name and position by latitude and longitude if you know it. Otherwise use your compass bearing (true or magnetic, state which one you are using) and the approximate distance from a well known landmark in the area. This can be a island or a chart navigational aid.
  6. State the nature of your distress (severe illness / capsize, lost your paddle and unable to get back into your boat).
  7. Release PTT switch.
  8. Wait 10 to 15 seconds, if no reply then repeat your "MAYDAY" call.

For important announcements such as busy channel crossings at night or in a fog use channel 9 as follows:
  1. Depress the PTT switch.
  2. Clearly say three times "SECURITAY" (French pronunciation of security).
  3. State the nature of the information you want others to know. E.g.:  This is brown Betsy Bay on channel 9.  There are five sea kayaks crossing the Stonington Harbor channel at red channel marker 10 on heading 220 magnetic.  All vessels in the vicinity please be advised. Brown Betsy Bay out.

Channels 68, 69, 71 and 72 are for boat to boat communication.  ConnYak group paddles normally use channel 68.

Channel 13 is for ship to bridge communication.  This is both movable land bridges and the bridges of large vessels. In a kayak we will not need to use this channel except in poor visibility in a busy shipping lane it is helpful to listen to what large vessels are doing.  Your VHF Instruction Manual will have all the channels and their designations.

  • Turn your radio on to channel 9 and listen to how people are making their calls.  Not all the examples will be proper radio usage. The poor ones will be pretty obvious.
  • Always listen before you transmit to avoid "stepping" on another person’s call.
  • Speak clearly in plain English.
  • Foul language or false distress calls are illegal.
  • Make your calls short and sweet.
  • Remember that anything you say will be heard by anybody in your area tuned to the same channel.

 A good kayaker should rarely if ever need to use his VHF for emergencies. It is important to have for that time when the unexpected happens and all your other skills fail.