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How to use a VHF Radio – Communicating over the Airwaves

Sailing is one of those things where the modern sailor totally gets to be off the grid. You can be completely by yourself, one with nature and full of peace and quiet – often a spiritual experience. But occasionally, the sailor needs to actually know how to use a VHF Radio to effectively communicate with the outside world, whether it’s for an emergency or just to talk to other power boat or sail boats nearby.
When you are out on the water, a piece of equipment that should be in every gear bag or permanently installed in your boat is a VHF Radio. Of course, there are tons of other communication devices available on the market: cell and satellite phones and two-way radios just to name a few; but the VHF is the standard, go-to communication device that all sailors, and boaters for that matter, should own and know how to use.
We know the pros and cons of the VHF and one particular pro of the VHF is the way it transmits. The frequencies VHF’s transmit on are very public. There is no such thing as a private or confidential VHF radio conversation. This is very important to note because there are definitely some do’s and don’ts of taking over your VHF.
We have put together a little etiquette guide for you, the modern sailor, on what you should and should not be doing when you use your VHF radio:
Be Clear, Be Clear, Be Clear.
Talk on the radio clearly so that the other users have no problem understanding what you are saying. There aren’t any subtitles for VHF conversations so speak as clearly as you can.
If you want to really one-up your buddies, learn the NATO phonetic alphabet and numbers – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie…  Not only will you earn cool points from everyone, you will make things a lot easier to understand when saying letters and numbers over the airwaves.
Keep the commercial and other dedicated channels for just that, commercial and dedicated messages. Unless you have a reason to be on those channels, keep your VHF on Channel 16 for hailing and monitoring.
DO This, NOT That..
You should know how to call someone over the radio. What’s the use in having something if you don’t know how to use it? When you want to call someone like another boat or a harbormaster, say the intended recipients name one to three times and then immediately follow with your boat name. For example, “Harbormaster, harbormaster, harbormaster, this is the sailing vessel Stern Scoop. Over.” What you don’t want to do is say something like, “I need to speak to the harbormaster. Over.” No one will respond to you mostly because they don’t know who just made the call.
When they respond to you, “Stern Scoop, this is Harbormaster. Over,” you can then move your conversation to another channel unless you have a very quick message. Always move your conversations to an open channel meant for conversing. In other words, don’t use Channel 16 for talking to your buddies about where you guys are going to meet up when you make it back to the docks.  There are channels set aside for this. Call your buddies up on Channel 16, but then move the call over to Channel 68, 69, or 71. “Harbormaster, this is Stern Scoop. Switch Channel 68. Over” “Harbormaster. Switching Channel 68. Over.”Once you are done with your conversation, switch back over to Channel 16. “Stern Scoop. Switching back 16. Over.” “Harbormaster. Switching back 16. Out.” If you are using VHF radios on board your boat to talk to your crew when you are docking your boat or grabbing a mooring ball, use Channel 72. This channel is dedicated for Non-commercial intership communications. Still, be clear and concise and use the proper language to finish each transmission with “over” or “out” if it’s the end of the communication.
Always make sure someone else is not already talking on the channel you are on. Ensure that the channel is clear before starting your conversation. You wouldn’t want to interrupt a distress or emergency call already in progress.
“Over and/or Out”
There is a big difference between “over” and “out” and each of these words has a distinct meaning. This isn’t rocket science, but you do need to make sure you know the uses for each of these two words. “Over” just means that you are finished speaking and awaiting some sort of reply. If you end your transmissions with “out,” you just ended the conversation.
NO FOUL LANGUAGE!!!
Not all sailors swear like sailors. Don’t live up to the stigma of talking like a sailor over the VHF airwaves. I’m not going to list any of the examples here, but you all know the words to avoid (and most of them have four letters). Even if you are talking amongst your crew while docking the boat, remember that others can still here you so keep your manners in check. There are actually laws against using profanities over the VHF and you could be fined for doing so. Basically, you want to talk on your VHF only using words you would use in front of your grandmother’s bridge club.

If you keep these guidelines in mind, you’ll be comfortable using your radio and speaking to other boaters pretty quickly. Just remember to be confident and clear and you won’t have any issues using your radio for recreational purposes or in time of need.

Stern Scoop back to Channel 16, Out.

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