Alvah Simon's Blog - Over and Out

“The VHF radio is a tool not a toy. It’s efficient operation relies on our knowledge of and adherence to the protocols that govern its use.”
“The VHF radio is a tool not a toy. It’s efficient operation relies on our knowledge of and adherence to the protocols that govern its use.”

My wife, Diana, and I were tacking our way up the Rio de la Plata between Argentina and Uruguay. As dutiful sailors do, we were monitoring VHF channel 16 in the event one of our fellow seafarers got into trouble. I put out a short contact call for another vessel. The silence was broken by a series of pranksters questioning the legitimacy of my birth and suggesting that my mother's profession was one of the oldest in the world. These high frequency hooligans were apparently energized by one fellow's imitation of body sounds that usually follow a bean fest, because they all chimed in with a five-minute cacophony of similarly clever content. I turned the radio off. Pity the vessel in genuine distress.

On land they would be taggers, in cyberspace hackers. The difference is you can repaint your fence or scan your computer. The consequence of loosing a universal distress channel, as Argentina, Florida, and too many more waterways to mention, can be a matter of life and death.

But they are not the only problem. We can unintentionally clog and confuse the airways with our own improper use of the maritime radio system. This is why it is important to reiterate that the VHF radio is a tool not a toy, and that it's efficient operation relies on our knowledge of and adherence to the protocols that govern its use. 

Each channel has a designated purpose- some allocated for port authorities, others ship-to-ship. 16 remains the main channel for emergencies and contact, but increasingly the Coast Guard is operating local channels where vessels can file float-plans and be monitored. Keep a list of these allocations posted near your radio (available at There is nothing wrong with using the VHF for social purposes. But you should use Channel 16 only to make contact with the desired vessel and agree to an appropriate channel to immediately move off to.

Next, use the lowest power setting possible. The rule of thumb is a mile of range per watt, so if your communication is with a buddy-boat on the next mooring there is no need to share that conversation with the entire coastal fleet. On the 25-watt setting you are potentially broadcasting over an area of approximately two thousand square miles. It's true. Limit your conversations. If you want to have a breezy catch-up, row over. You might get a drink out of the deal.

When making any contact first identify the station you are calling, then your own vessel name and/or call sign. "Whangarei Coast Guard, Whangarei Coast Guard. This is sailing vessel Roger Henry, WCG 4377." Do not transmit your request yet. Wait for confirmation of contact with the desired station. If no answer, WAIT for a reasonable interval. Do not make rapid and repetitious calls.

The vocabulary used on the radio is concise because it is precise. "Oy! Ya got yer ears on there Good Buddy?" is a bit relaxed for our purposes. And, at the risk of sounding pedantic, please do not close your transmission with the nonsensical "Over and Out". That is yet another of Hollywood's institutionalized errors, like "Krakatoa, East Of Java" (No, it's west). If you say "over" it indicates that it is the other station's turn to transmit and that you are now monitoring. If you are "out" the radio is turned off and you will not be there to monitor their call.

Instruct all crewmembers and guest in the proper use of the VHF in the event of your incapacitation. Near your radio post a sheet that describes the three levels of alert:

Security Security, Security - to issue a general alert regarding navigational hazards or other issues of safety.

Pan, Pan, Pan- to issue an alert that your vessel or crew are in jeopardy but the danger is not life threatening

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday - ONLY to be used when lives and vessel are in grave and imminent danger. 

Remember, running out of fuel or, perish the thought, beer does not constitute a Mayday emergency. Think it over, because when you use that word you mobilize a host of resources and potentially place rescue personnel in harm's way. Of course, we all hope that we will never have to issue that call. But should that unfortunate situation occur, there is a specific procedure to follow. 

I recently saw a cartoon that showed a couple of men in the water floating away from a yacht waiving in distress. A women is speaking into a handheld VHF radio, saying, "Hello Coastguard. Well Roger stumbled and fell over the side and my husband said, "Don't worry Darling I'll...."

            The better approach is to first switch to the highest power setting. Then, it seems too obvious to say, key the mike. In an emergency the simplest of actions can be lost in the panic. Then say slowly:

  2. "THIS IS (boat name, boat name, boat name)."
  3. "MAYDAY. (boat's name)'s position is (stated in lat and long, only to the tenth of a mile or relative to a well known landmark or navigational feature)."
  4. "WE (state the nature of your emergency)."
  5. "WE REQUIRE (state type of assistance required)."
  6. "ONBOARD ARE (number of adults and children and condition of any injured)."
  7. "(Boat name) IS (describe vessel i.e. sailing/power, length, color, trim.)
  8. " WE WILL BE LISTENING TO (state channel)."
  9. "THIS IS (boat name), OVER." (Release the transmit button).


Job well done and, in most cases, rest assured, help is on the way. So, in conclusion, "All stations, all stations, all stations. This is sailing vessel Roger Henry WCG 4377, standing by channel 16, ready to respond to any and all invitations to row over for a chat and that aforementioned drink."


Alvah Simon

Boating NZ