On Water Communications

With today’s busy lifestyles we would be lost if it were not for our ability to communicate with one another at any given instant. From PDA’s and cell phones to pagers and WiFi hotspots around town, we can get our business done, call home to check on the kids, and make plans with our friends from virtually anywhere, easily. Anywhere that is, except on the water. Sure you can install amplified cell phone antennas and satellite phones, and even get broad band connectivity at sea. The problem is those are very expensive, private two way devices and the people who need to hear you in case of an emergency aren’t listening. It is recommended any vessel, (ship, boat, PWC, canoe or kayak) on the water, lake or ocean carry at a minimum, a portable VHF marine band radio. Depending on the size or type of vessel, you may actually be required to carry and monitor a VHF or Single Side Band radio.

The Coast Guard monitors channel 16 which is a hailing and distress frequency throughout the United States. If you find yourself in a situation which poses a threat to you and your passengers, you should use the VHF radio on channel 16 to call for help. When using a cell phone, only the person on the other end can hear you. As we all know a cell phone will only work as long as you have signal and power. Should you lose either of these during a distress call the results can be fatal as was the tragic case of the four boys lost off of City Island a few years back. If you use the VHF radio, any other boat equipped with a radio monitoring 16 will also hear your call and be able to respond to your calls for help.

Here are some simple procedures for using the VHF radio; turn on the unit and adjust the squelch up to a point where any noise disappears, adjust volume to a level that will be used while underway. Use channel 16 for emergency calling, safety and distress only. Use channel 09 for radio checks. Use channel 13 to monitor and contact commercial ships and bridges for openings. Use channels, 68, 69, 71 and 78 for recreational communications between vessels. When pressing the push to talk button, check first to make sure no one else is speaking, keep calls short and to the point and try to keep “chatter” to a minimum. Do not let children play “walkie talkie” games with other boaters as this could very well put someone in danger at further risk. Most radios have the ability to set up a number of channels that you can scan until a transmission is heard. I find this particularly useful when transiting the eastern parts of Long Island Sound when it gets foggy and I want to hear both the commercial traffic on 13 and monitor 16 as well.

Your time on the water will be much more enjoyable when you plan ahead. The radio can help you do just that, use your VHF to get the latest weather from NOAA broadcasts. There are usually two or three channels you can tune to in any given area. The forecasts are designed for constant updates and even can alert you to oncoming severe weather depending on your model. Occasionally you will hear the Coast Guard announce “For marine safety broadcasts, switch and listen to channel 22 alpha”. This usually will precede a special weather announcement or description of some other hazard to navigation. Remember, the VHF radio is for communicating marine related safety, operations, and business matters. Have one working on your boat at all times underway, and you will have the most reliable means of on water communications available.