VHF radio etiquette

boy on radio
“Thanks for the wake, @$$%*#!”  Unpleasant to imagine, unpleasant to hear, and rude on all sides. We haven’t heard that since leaving the USA and I don’t miss this aspect of many boaters in close proximity plus a dose of …well, of whatever it is that prompts throwing a wake or respond like that! They need to go cruising.DSC_1185

Summertime radio chatter included restrained and frequent USCG reminders not to use channel 16 for radio checks, to move conversations away from 16 (reserved for distress and hailing only), and more publicly aired inanity. And more from people who didn’t know how to talk over the radio. Reliance on radio fosters good habits cruisers… eventually. Learning and modeling good protocol pays off. It shouldn’t feel silly, unless you’re prone to slip into CB jargon (“10-4” or “good buddy” have no place on VHF).

Lack of decency aside, a lot of perfectly decent people also simply don’t seem to know how to use VHF radio. Poor protocol hampers understanding at best and creates dangerous situations at worst…and between, a lot of the time just results in frustration.

VHF basics refresher

VHF protocol is to repeat the name of the boat you’re calling two or three times, followed by “this is…” and the name of your vessel twice.

After making contact, request to switch from the hailing channel (16) to a working channel such as 68, 69, or 72 for conversation. The other person should reply confirming that channel, or propose another. Without confirmation, you can find yourself scanning channels to find where the other person went, or if they heard you clearly. Once switched to the working channel, be sure the channel is not already in use before reestablishing contact.

In conversation, saying “over” at the end of each transmission hands the conversational baton back to the other boat. This may be unnecessary if the audio is clear and the other person is familiar. Indicate your departure from the conversation by saying “Totem is clear” or “Totem going back to 16”. “Over and out” (or any jargon associated with CB radio or dated cop shows) is like waving a big red noob flag: “out” is for switching off the radio, not standing by to await response…you go over, or you go out, but you don’t do both.

vhf radio radiotelephone
Mint- and functional! classic radio telephone spotted in Walvis Bay, Namibia

These may be obvious but the simple act of confirming an action, like “Totem switching to 72,” is often skipped—leaving the listening boat to wonder if the switch actually happened. Radios can be finicky: transmissions get stepped on, have interference, or just aren’t in range. Did the other boat hear your request to switch to 72? We often use our handheld in the cockpit and it’s awkward to flip back and forth from 16 to 72 to find out.

It doesn’t take long to get into the rhythm of good habits, especially if a newer-to-cruising boat can listen to / model from more experienced boats around them. Home waters were another story: our US sojourn was a good reminder not to take VHF protocol and etiquette for granted. A petty spat over the airwaves is unpleasant. Repeated calls on channel 16 by boaters requesting radio checks get old fast. If a boat is speeding or tossing a big wake in a slow or no wake zone, swearing at them out on the radio accomplishes nothing (and is an offense for which you may be fined!). You can always issue a Sécurité call, and be sure to mention the boat by name as a hazard to navigation.

Off Samana on VHF with Akira

10 Responses

  1. Last summer we heard the most embarrassing thing I have ever heard – in the middle of a conversation on 16 between a boat in distress taking on water and the Canadian Coast Guard, a woman’s voice pops on chastising them for chatting on Chanel 16. The coast guard was super polite, but oh my…please be quiet while I try to ascertain whether this man is sinking and where he is!! (Other cruisers in our bay were in the area and went to help him, and we were in a J/80 so really of no use, other than to be shocked someone could be so clueless about what was happening on the radio!)

  2. Another piece of important advice to newbies or worth reminding old salts:
    Say Channel “7” “2” instead of “72”

  3. Another snippet of radio protocol. The station that is being called is the station that ‘controls’ the call, this is the opposite to what most people would except. The called station will respond to the calling station with a proposed channel to move to.

  4. You are quiet right on the need to understand and use radios properly. I understand very well as I hold the callsign MM0MSU. Which is a full license in the UK. Thanks for pointing out the importance of using proper radio comm’s. Though last I knew 10 series are still accepted as a form of abbreviation on both marine and amateur radio (10-20, 10-40 [10-4], 10-50) as are the Q codes (which come from CW (Constant Wave = Morse code to shorten groups of information).

    One item i have seen here in the UK is folks setting up marine radios and NOT taking the time to tune equipment. That one item alone can make a huge deference in reception quality and range. I agree completely that folks really need to spend time learning radio properly as i am teaching my kids as it also teaches a good bit of electronics and understanding of physics. Thanks for the article. Stay safe.

    1. Couldn’t agree more about the value of testing setup before taking off! Re: 10 series: accepted or not, it’s waving a big noob flag to use them.

  5. Great post.

    Reminds me of what my old boss in the Royal Navy used to say – “if in doubt Roger it”!

    Fair winds

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