Calling All Stations

by Jim O'Donnell

VHF radio is not some social medium for idle angler chit-chat, and applying correct VHF radio voice protocols at all times is a key part of safety at sea. Charter skipper, Jim O’ Donnell is your guide to using VHF correctly, efficiently and legally.

Every weekend small boat and kayak owners take to sea with no method of ship-to-shore communication other than perhaps a mobile phone. Given the distances that advances in boat and engine design allow self-drive boats to travel these days, heading out for a trip without a VHF unit is foolhardy at best and suicidal should the weather blow up, or a breakdown occur at sea.

MCA publish regular reports on accidents at sea including sea angling incidents.

A hand-held VHF is the very minimum that the watercraft owner should be packing when preparing for a trip, and if travelling out of line of sight of a shore station, a fixed unit with it’s additional power and antenna height is a must. A fixed unit can still be unplugged at the end of the day and taken home for security.

a small boat far out at sea

A hand -held VHF is a useful unit if close to shore, or if fishing within sight of other vessels where its lack of range is not such a problem. And, the effective range of these radios can be extended by linking them to a fixed antenna. There is no better back up to the main set should it go down, and if you had to take to the life raft at least you can load your hand-held unit in a waterproof container. If you regularly go to sea you should consider carrying both styles of VHF.

A fixed unit has a greater range due to its increased power and the greater effective height of the antenna which is fixed generally to the boat’s wheelhouse or cuddy roof. The separate microphone and higher output speaker mean that the audio quality is also improved.

VHF range

A VHF set uses radio waves and its power out put is measured in watts. Hand-held radios put out between 1 and 6 watts, while a fixed unit will operate at up to 25 watts. The fixed unit is clearly far more powerful and will give you a greater distance when communicating, particularly when accompanied by a fixed antenna giving extra height over the hand-held.

A VHF radio has a range which is slightly greater than line of sight. The higher you can mount your antenna, the further the receptions and transmissions will travel. It is preferable to have the mast mounted on a stainless gantry, with an antenna extension pole so that your antenna can be mounted higher, as this is guaranteed to further your VHF range.

Roughly speaking if you and your mate both have six foot high antennas you will each have a radio horizon of around 3 miles which means that you would be able to communicate 6 miles apart. If you have a large forehead and want to try the calculations yourself the total distance in miles = 1.23(?H1 + ?H2) where H is the antenna heights in feet. Or you could be lazy and go to

a fixed VHF radion

Weather conditions and the lie of the land can affect the range of the VHF signal and fishing close in under cliffs can block the signal to and from a land based station.

Microphone handsets

Most fixed radios come fitted as standard with a CB style fist mike. These mikes are serviceable and should present no problems in use. The speaker is normally contained within the set body. A telephone style handset will give your voice frequencies a better range and sound clearer to the listener. With the speaker close to your own ear, the person whom you are calling will sound clearer to you too.


Two very important pieces of paper are required to legally use a VHF radio…

  • A marine radio operator’s certificate of Competence and Authority to Operate – this can be gained from the Royal Yachting Association by attending their one-day course.
  • A radio licence this is valid for as long as you are the boat owner, and need only be updated every 10 years. The owner of the radio needs only one licence and any qualified operators onboard can benefit from this. A copy of the licence must be held on board the vessel.
  • You must have a separate Ship Portable Radio Licence for each hand held VHF DSC radio. This is because each individual radio is given a separate identity.
  • A Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number is now issued to all new Ship Radio and Ship Portable Radio Licences.

Details of the licences from Ofcom.

Radio etiquette, dual watch, and channels


As with most things in life you can make it as complicated as you like, but radio etiquette is quite simply a mix of good manners and common sense. The VHF should only be used for operational purposes, and not to find out the football scores or for general chit chat.

The four main rules are…

  • Always use the lowest power setting that will transmit your call
  • Listen before you speak to ensure the channel is clear
  • Be brief. You are using a channel that is also being used by other boats or shore stations
  • Think before you speak and this will help make your call clear and concise

Dual watch

Always buy a radio that features the dual watch function. Dual watch is a facility that enables you to monitor two channels at once i.e. channel 16 for the coastguard, safety, and weather information introductions, plus say channel 6, which you and a pal in another boat are using to share fishing information.

Radio Scanning host an up to date list of the channels, their frequencies and their uses.

Inter-ship channels

a hand held VHF radioThese are the channels you may use to communicate from boat to boat and include: 06, 08, 09, 10, 13, 15, 17, 72, 73, 69, 67, 77.

Port operations channels

09, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 68, 71, 74, 10, 67, 69, 73. These are used by various ports, and you will need to check your local port’s operating channel.

A full list of port channels can be downloaded at

The following single channels have one specific purpose.

Ch 0 – is used by search and rescue services.

Ch 13 is used for bridge-to-bridge communication regarding safety of navigation.

Ch 16 used and monitored by the coastguard for all safety operations. This is the channel you use if you have something to report, or are if in some form of danger or trouble. Channel 16 should be monitored at all times. It is acceptable practice to call another vessel using channel 16, but after the initial contact you should switch to an inter-ship channel.

Ch 67 is used by the coastguard for routine conversations after they have been initially contacted on Ch 16. This channel is often used to transmit weather forecasts and navigation information.

Ch 70 is used exclusively for digital selective calling.

Ch 80 is used as the primary working channel between yachts and marinas.

Ch M1 (37) is the secondary working channel used by yachts and marinas.

Ch M2 is used for the control of yacht races

The phonetic alphabet and prowords

The phonetic alphabet and prowords (procedure words) have been developed for times when communication is difficult, or you need the listener to understand clearly what you are trying to tell them.


  • Acknowledge: Used to highlight have you received and understood
  • Confirm: Used to gain confirmation i.e. this is what I thought I heard… is that correct?
  • Correction: Used when an error has been made; the correct version is…
  • I say again: Used when you need to repeat something important within a conversation
  • I spell: Used to warn the listener you are about to spell something using the phonetic alphabet
  • Out: Used to end the conversation after this transmission
  • Over: Used to invite a reply after a certain part of your transmission
  • Received: Used to acknowledge receipt of the other persons transmission or part of it
  • Say Again: Used to ask the other party to repeat the whole of, or part of their last t
  • Station Calling: Used when the calling stations identity has not been understood and you have no other identity to call them by

The Phonetic alphabet

A – Alfa B – Bravo C – Charlie D – Delta E – Echo F – Foxtrot G – Golf
H – Hotel I – India J – Juliet K – Kilo L – Lima M – Mike N – November
O – Oscar P – Papa Q – Quebec R – Romeo S – Sierra T – Tango U – Uniform
V – Victor W – Whiskey X – X-ray Y – Yankee Z – Zulu
0 – Zero 1 – Wun 2 – Two 3 – Tree 4 – Fower 5 – Fife 6 – Six
7 – Seven 8 – Ait 9 – Niner

Emergency procedures

There are three ways in which to address an emergency call. Each has its own title and this represents the over-all importance to the listener.

  • Distress: Used where there is an immediate risk of loss of property or life. Your call should be addressed MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY
  • Urgency: If you, your vessel or anybody onboard have an urgent problem, but are not in any immediate danger, your call should be addressed PAN PAN, PAN PAN, PAN PAN
  • Safety: If you have an announcement to make regarding safety, this could be something dangerous floating at sea to report, or the fact that you’re towing another vessels, use the prefix SECURITE, SECURITE, SECURITE

Please make sure you use the correct prefix for the correct situation.

NOTE: It may be illegal to use VHF radio with out an operator’s certificate, but for any of the above procedures all this is thrown completely out of the window. For instance, your charter skipper may take ill and be unable to operate the radio leaving the responsibility in the hands of his customers… that could be you.
Anyone who steps foot on any boat, even if it’s just once a year, should familiarise themselves with the following emergency procedure…

Making an emergency call (capital lettering to represent actual speech)

First turn the VHF radio to channel 16 and select the high power transmission option if it doesn’t self-select!

MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY (Pan Pan or Securite, you need to chose the importance of your announcement but repeat it three times).

ALL STATIONS, ALL STATIONS, ALL STATIONS (this is optional as emergency broadcasts are for anyone who might hear them anyway).

THIS IS… (State the name of the vessel you are on and repeat it three times i.e. this is Enterprise, Enterprise, Enterprise).

MY POSITION IS… (You now need to give the vessel’s position. The best way by far will be to read the vessel’s latitude and longitude numbers from the GPS, but if you can’t do this, something like “approximately 20 miles south of Portland” will be a lot better than nothing).

I AM… (Now you need to state the nature of your emergency i.e. I am holed and sinking fast. Or, I have one injured crew. Or it could be if you are reporting a safety matter i.e. there is lots of debris floating in position… Keep it brief and clear for all information given).

I NEED… (Next you need to state the type of assistance you require).

THERE ARE… (Lastly you need to state the total number of persons on board. This may sound inappropriate, but the rescue services will need to know so they can arrange suitable recovery of both, your passengers and your vessel).

OVER… (Hand over and wait for somebody to reply. If nobody replies within a minute or two, repeat the broadcast again and keep this up until you get a reply.)

Thurso lifeboat with a tow rope out

Other vessels in distress

If you ever hear another vessel, put out a call; immediately write down all the information they give. Wait several minutes to see if anybody replies and if nobody replies, reply to them yourself. Think about it for a minute, if you were in trouble it would be nice to know that somebody has heard you!

The reason the other vessel may not be getting a reply may be because their radio isn’t powerful enough, so after you have initially acknowledged them, wait a few minutes and repeat the emergency call on his behalf, using the prefix… MAYDAY RELAY, MAYDAY RELAY, MAYDAY RELAY.

Your radio maybe more powerful, or you may just be that little bit nearer to a receiving station than they are. It won’t hurt one bit to have two boats announcing that one is in trouble.

DSC controllers

A new emergency radio service which compliments the coastguard is the GMDSS system (Global Maritime Distress and Safety System).

This is a revolutionary system that uses an item of electronics called a DSC (Digital Selective Calling) controller, to send an emergency call on your behalf. Basically instead of picking up the radio and yelling MAYDAY, you flip a cover, push a big red button and all the emergency information is sent to the appropriate stations immediately without you having to say a thing. DSC controllers are interfaced with your GPS unit and will also send out your positional information as well.

Handheld VHF radios are available with internal GPS which negates the requirement to

The future plan is to eventually transfer over to this system for all maritime emergency calls around the world. Next time you are looking to purchase a VHF radio, look for one that has a DSC controller built in, or at least one that is DSC compatible so you can upgrade at a later date.

What is Digital Selective Calling?

DSC is simply a tone signalling system, which operates on VHF Channel 70 and is similar to the tone dialling on a phone, but with the ability to include data such as the vessel’s identifcation number, the purpose of the call, the vessel’s position, and the channel for further voice communications. In other words, vessels can call each other direct by use of their MMSIs (rather like a telephone number) without bothering other vessels or shore stations unless of course it is a Distress/Urgency call. The VHF radiotelephony system requires users to listen on channel 16 until someone speaks and to determine whether the call is for them more often than not, it won’t be.

Benefits of DSC

Distress alerting

At the touch of a button, you can send your boat’s identity, your position (if a GPS is installed in VHF) and the nature of distress. The position given will be precise and the alert will be heard immediately by all DSC equipped vessels and shore stations within range. The distress message will be automatically repeated every 4 minutes until it is acknowledged either by a Coastguard station or ship within radio range.

Safety broadcasts

Maritime Safety Information (MSI) broadcasts from coast stations and shipping automatically generate an alert (ring tone) to ensure this vital information is not missed.

Routine calls

To call another vessel or coast station, you simply input their dedicated number (mobile maritime service identity MMSI), select your chosen VHF working channel and send the call – it’s like using a telephone. Both your radio and the one you are calling automatically switch to the chosen channel for subsequent conversation.


To sum it all up you can have the best fish finding electronics known to mankind, but this will not get you out of trouble in the event of a breakdown or other emergency.
Think more about the effectiveness of your VHF radio before you spend big bucks on that 65 inch, wide screen, Dolby surround sound chart plotter you have always wanted. Although these pieces of equipment are nice and obviously will improve your fishing, they will sink with your boat and not aid your rescue.

Anyone who goes to sea, even if you fish within sight of land, without a good, well proven VHF radio, is nothing more than a fool!

On a final note, hundreds of people around the world use the term ‘over and out’. No such term exists, other than old war movies. Over means: ‘I hand the conversation over to you to reply’, while out means: ‘end of conversation’. Never use the term ‘over-and-out’, it is incorrect, inappropriate and makes no sense, as all would realise if they attended the one day course and obtained the operators’ certificate!

Be legal, be safe, own a good radio, hold a proper licence, and enjoy your boating as much as your fishing.

Icom Marine have a full range of VHF units available.

Facebook Comments Box

You may also like

Leave a Comment

I accept the Privacy Policy

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.