Why your VHF radio is Sooooo Important!


Why your VHF radio is Sooooo Important!
And why knowing how to use it,
is more important!

By Wayne Spivak
National Press Corps
National Marketing & Public Affairs Department
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

On 11 May 1993, two vessels that were in the same general area (the waters off Fan Island, Porcher Peninsula, British Columbia.) transmitted MAYDAY messages at about the same time. The message, as received, read: "MAYDAY MAYDAY ... going down." The other message read: "MAYDAY MAYDAY we're going down."

Due to the proximity of the vessels, and the almost identical messages issued, both vessels were lost. The messages were transmitted on their VHF radios. However, the procedures used during the transmission of the message and the fact that they occurred almost simultaneously were the main reasons cited why the Canadian Coast Guard response was prematurely terminated.

This is an example, which highlights what can happen, when not properly using your safety equipment. This error caused one of the crew to die of, and the other crew members to suffer hypothermia. All because they didn't follow tried and tested emergency radio procedures.

All recreational boats should carry a VHF marine radio on board. While currently not a federal regulation, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, during their Vessel Safety Check (VSC) recommends this piece of safety equipment. More importantly, all members of the crew need to know how to use this important piece of safety equipment!

VHF Radio vs. Cell phone vs. Citizen's Band (CB) Radio

A marine radio (VHF) can be bought as a handheld radio or a base unit.

Fixed mount (base) units can broadcast at a maximum of 25 watts, with the ability of also being able to reduce power to 1 watt. Handhelds normally don't broadcast over 5 watts. Base units, given the correct tuning, height of antenna and atmospheric conditions, can broadcast up to 20 nautical miles, but normally in the 5-10 mile category.

Handheld radios have the advantage of being able to be carried while you move around your vessel or while on a dinghy. The disadvantage of this type of radio is the limited power (wattage per channel) that they are able to produce. The smaller the wattage, the weaker the signal becomes as it radiates from the antenna. Thus, the strength, and limited antenna size, makes long distance communication nearly impossible.

Cell phones have large number of disadvantages, starting with the inability of other mariner's to hear your call for distress, which may not be heard by a Coast Guard Units to the inability of the Coast Guard to use direction finding equipment to hone in on your signal, should you be unable to describe your location. Add to these factors the limited distances cell service extends into the ocean, and you have a generally unreliable service.

Citizen Band Radios, the rage in the early to mid 1970's, is for most intents and purposes useless as a vehicle in which to contact the Coast Guard. Most Coast Guard Units do not have, and thus are unable to receive CB radio broadcasts, and thus are not able to respond.

The safety conscious recreational boater will purchase the best safety equipment they can afford, and when it comes to a VHF marine radio (a fixed mount VHF-FM can be obtained for as little as $100), they will buy a radio which will provide quality transmission signal strength, and the ability to quickly listen and transmit on channels reserved for distress calls. In addition, most new units have the ability to continuously monitor multiple frequencies.

What to do in an emergency

Let's briefly go over the three main types of emergency calls you will hear, according to the Office of Boating Safety (OBS) of the United States Coast Guard, while monitoring CH16 on your VHF radio:

MAYDAY is a request for immediate assistance. LISTEN! DO NOT TRANSMIT!! Determine if you're in a position to help. If not, maintain radio silence. "MAYDAY" identifies an imminent, life-threatening emergency.

PAN-PAN (pronounced pahn-pahn) is used when the safety of a boat or person is in jeopardy. Man-overboard messages are sent with the PAN-PAN signal.

SECURITE (pronounced say-cure-e-tay) is used to pass navigation information or weather warnings.
According to the OBS, if you have an emergency, you should use your VHF radio in the following manner:

If you have an imminent life threatening emergency, transmit on Channel 16:

2. This is (name of boat three times).
3. Repeat once more, "MAYDAY", (your boat's name).
4. Now report your position (give as accurate a position as possible).
5. Report nature of emergency.
6. Report the kind of assistance desired.
7. Report number of people on board and condition of any injured.
8. Description of the boat and seaworthiness.

**Then wait for a response. If there is none, repeat the message**

So, if your vessel is named Blue Duck and you have an emergency, your broadcast may sound like this:

This Is Blue Duck - Blue Duck - Blue Duck
Cape Henry Light Bears 185 Degrees Magnetic-Distance 2 Miles
Struck Submerged Object
Need Pumps-Medical Assistance And Tow
Three Adults, Two Children Onboard
One Person Compound Fracture Of Arm
Estimate Can Remain Afloat Two Hours
Blue Duck Is Thirty Two Foot Cabin Cruiser-White Hull-Blue Deck House

Boating and Safety Education

The United States Coast Guard, the Office for Boating Safety and the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary are committed to making Recreational Boating SAFE!

To this end, the USCG Auxiliary provides boating and safety programs to meet the needs of our constituents, the boating public. We do this by teaching a myriad of safe boating courses, available year-round at convenient places to where boaters live, work and boat.

We provide Vessel Safety Checks at marina's, docks, and other centrally located areas. We want you to know that your vessel not only complies with Federal standards, but with State and Local ordinances, and with the other recommended safety items, we in the Auxiliary feel are necessary to keep your boating voyage, safe.

In addition, members of the Auxiliary, who are all volunteers, spend countless hours doing safety patrols, search and rescue and homeland security patrols, on the ground, on the water and in the air.

To contact your local Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla, you can either visit us on the web (https://www.cgaux.org) or contact your local Coast Guard Unit (https://www.uscg.mil).