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Ask Ken: Common Mistakes When Using a VHF Radio

Keep the airwaves clear and other boaters happy by avoiding these VHF mistakes.

Q. What are common mistakes that VHF radio operators make?

A. Here are a few of my electronics pet peeves.

Listen before you talk. It is amateurish to talk on a channel when a conversation is already in progress. Wait until the other parties have ended their dialog.

Think before you speak. Hemming and hawing over the radio congests the airwaves and wastes time. Say “standby” when you need to collect your thoughts.

Failure to monitor. Commercial radio operators monitor Channel 16 for US Coast Guard alerts concerning hazards, navaid updates, weather warnings, and transmissions from other boats. Failure to do so means you might miss critical information.

Failure to advise the party you’re talking to. You need to let them know that you are finished talking and awaiting a reply. Simply say “over” to signify this.

Incorrectly concluding a communication. If you are not expecting a reply, just say “out” or “clear.”

Hogging the Airwaves. All vessels share the same few VHF channels. Limit all communications to under three minutes. Others may be waiting to use the channel. Remember that a marine radio is primarily for boating safety and intership communications, and not for chitchat. Personal communications are best made on your cellphone.

Improperly Calling Another Boat. The correct procedure to call another vessel is to repeat the name of the boat you are calling three times followed by your boat’s name once. Example: “Bright Star, Bright Star, Bright Star. This is Silver Sea.”

Calling Another Boat for More Than 30 Seconds. If no response is heard, wait two minutes before recalling. Don’t call the same vessel more than three times. If no reply is received after three attempts, wait 15 minutes before calling again.

Not Waiting Until 10 Minutes Have Elapsed. You should wait 10 minutes after completing a conversation with a boat before calling another boat on the same channel.

Neglecting to Identify Yourself. You should identify yourself at the beginning and end of radio communications. When calling another boat, state the name of the boat you are calling three times, then say, “This is (your boat’s name).” When the radio message is concluded, say, “(Your boat’s name) out,” or “clear.”

Talking on Commercial, Government or Other Restricted Channels. When communicating with other vessels, it is best to talk on popular ship-to-ship pleasure-craft channels 68, 69, 71, 72 and 78A. If there is a lot of radio traffic, advise the other boat to switch to a ship-to-ship channel that is not in use.

Neglecting to Speak to Be Understood. When talking on the radio, it is best to speak slightly slower than you would when talking to someone in person. Make an effort to speak clearly and calmly. Remember, radio communications are competing with the onboard engine, wind and water noise, as well as on-the-air radio atmospheric noise interference.

Shouting into the Microphone. Shouting can cause distortion and make your message more difficult to understand. For better clarity, speak with a slightly louder voice while holding your radio’s microphone approximately 1 inch from the lips. Also, turn the microphone at about a 90-degree angle, and talk across the face of the microphone rather than directly into it.

Using a Handheld VHF Radio While on Land to Talk to a Boat. The use of any marine radio on land is forbidden by the Federal Communications Commission. As an alternative, use a pair of FRS (Family Radio Service) portable radios. These are inexpensive and readily available at home hardware and sporting-goods centers. These handy communicators can be legally used on land and sea, or in the air.

There are a few radios, such as the Icom IC-M85 and Standard Horizon HX380 or HX400 handhelds, that have all the marine channels and can have land mobile frequencies programmed (by a servicing dealer) into the radios, including the five MURS (Multi-Use Radio Service) channels, which do not require a license and can be used on a boat or on land.


  • Marina Del Rey, CA 90292, USA
  • Ken Englert