Boaters often ask me if I think they should have a VHF radio. I believe the answer depends upon where and how you boat. For boaters who do not have one, let’s look at the pros and cons of buying one. For boaters who do have one, I will cover some details regarding their use and legalities.
If you don’t have a VHF onboard, here’s what you need to know: a VHF (Very High Frequency) radio, encompassing the marine radio band is simple to operate and provides long range two-way radio connection. The main reason many small boaters give for not buying one, is that today’s cell phones can also provide adequate communication in many areas. But a cell phone falls short in both its range and the fact that a cell connects with one person, while a VHF broadcasts to a large geographical area. An emergency cell phone call where towers are available will put you in touch with an operator at 911. A VHF emergency call will reach not only rescue teams, but every boater in your proximity who owns a VHF. Many times these boaters can come to your assistance more quickly than formal responders. Most shore facilities, and all lift bridges, expect you to call them on a specified VHF channel when approaching. In addition to helm VHF radios that are wired to your battery, there are hand-held versions that have a rechargeable battery.
And there are more good reasons why boaters should have a VHF radio. The most obvious is their ability to save lives by summoning help. They withstand rough treatment and exposure to water while offering a more effective and consistent reception then CB radios or cell phones. Boaters also have instant access to dedicated continuous weather broadcasts and responders that can locate the source of a VHF signal in all weather conditions, even fog.
If these benefits justify your purchasing a VHF of sufficient quality for pleasurecraft applications, you will be glad to know they are reasonably priced. You can buy a helm-mounted unit for less than $300 (Cdn) and a higher-end model with GPS connection, noise cancelling microphone and DSC for under $400. If your VHF use is infrequent, a good hand-held can be found for under $200. When you buy a VHF radio, it comes programmed with the marine channels allocated for marine mobile communications.
If you already have a VHF radio in your boat, here is some worthwhile information. As we know, the air is alive with the waves of radios. Controlling them is something that every country attempts to do, and this is not an easy task. Accordingly, there is no shortage of government rules and regulations on radio operation and licensing. Hundreds of frequencies have been identified for specific purposes and areas.
So, the big question is — do you need a special license to operate a VHF radio?
As you might expect, the government answer is not a simple one. Specifically, you will not require a license if you meet both of the following criteria: The vessel must be operated within Canadian waters, and the radio only capable of operating on marine mobile radio navigation frequencies.
But this also means that if you cross the border, you will require one. For those adventurous boaters who might travel across borders, a Restricted Operator Certificate – Maritime (ROC- M can be applied for in Canada on an IC-3020 application for a Maritime Mobile Radio Station License). At least an ROC (M) certificate once obtained is good for life.
At this point you have used your VHF and learned that there is a protocol for the language used. No trucker CB talk here. Monitor channel 16 at all times. Keep messages on 16 short and begin with who you are calling and who you are. For example, “Lady Perfect, Lady Perfect, this is Nice Guy, Nice Guy, over.” Once you get a reply, you immediately suggest a channel for both of you to switch to, in order to keep emergency channel 16 free from non essential conversation. Say something like, “Lady Perfect, Go channel 84.” Specific applications are specified for every VHF channel. For example 78A is for the fishing industry and 80A for whale watching, but I usually select a couple of the ones set for pleasurecraft conversations, such as 27 and 85.
Another often overlooked legal requirement for VHF users is to switch your radio wattage output from 25 to 1, when in ports and marinas. One watt is all you need and it prevents overwhelming nearby people on the receiving end. As electronic capabilities grow, so do VHF radio functions. A popular feature today is DSC (Digital Selective Calling). To use this function, apply through Industry Canada for a free unique identity number for your radio, called a Maritime Mobile Service Identity number, or MMSI. With this, you can send and receive digital messages to one vessel or groups of vessels, on VHF channel 70. Detailed instructions will come with your MMSI number.
Your MMSI number can also be used to connect an AIS transponder (Automatic Identification System). This cool device allows you to find and observe every vessel in the world that also has an AIS transponder. Of course, they can also see you. The best way for me to describe how this works is for you to go to marinetraffic.com or vesselfinder.com and see it in action. Check it out. And when you have your own AIS, clicking on any of the boat icons will give you the type, position, speed, direction, destination and company details of the boat you click. A final consideration regarding VHF radios: marine patrols everywhere use VHF. In Ontario, for example, there are 131 OPP patrol boats on the lakes. All of them monitoring channel 16 in the event you need them. Be safe out there, and use your radio wisely.