VHF radio etiquette

4 Aug

boy on radio
“Thanks for the wake, @$$%*#!”  Unpleasant to imagine, unpleasant to hear, and rude on all sides. We haven’t heard that since leaving the USA and I don’t miss this aspect of many boaters in close proximity plus a dose of …well, of whatever it is that prompts throwing a wake or respond like that! They need to go cruising.DSC_1185

Summertime radio chatter included restrained and frequent USCG reminders not to use channel 16 for radio checks, to move conversations away from 16 (reserved for distress and hailing only), and more publicly aired inanity. And more from people who didn’t know how to talk over the radio. Reliance on radio fosters good habits cruisers… eventually. Learning and modeling good protocol pays off. It shouldn’t feel silly, unless you’re prone to slip into CB jargon (“10-4” or “good buddy” have no place on VHF).

Lack of decency aside, a lot of perfectly decent people also simply don’t seem to know how to use VHF radio. Poor protocol hampers understanding at best and creates dangerous situations at worst…and between, a lot of the time just results in frustration.

VHF basics refresher

VHF protocol is to repeat the name of the boat you’re calling two or three times, followed by “this is…” and the name of your vessel twice.

After making contact, request to switch from the hailing channel (16) to a working channel such as 68, 69, or 72 for conversation. The other person should reply confirming that channel, or propose another. Without confirmation, you can find yourself scanning channels to find where the other person went, or if they heard you clearly. Once switched to the working channel, be sure the channel is not already in use before reestablishing contact.

In conversation, saying “over” at the end of each transmission hands the conversational baton back to the other boat. This may be unnecessary if the audio is clear and the other person is familiar. Indicate your departure from the conversation by saying “Totem is clear” or “Totem going back to 16”. “Over and out” (or any jargon associated with CB radio or dated cop shows) is like waving a big red noob flag: “out” is for switching off the radio, not standing by to await response…you go over, or you go out, but you don’t do both.

vhf radio radiotelephone

Mint- and functional! classic radio telephone spotted in Walvis Bay, Namibia

These may be obvious but the simple act of confirming an action, like “Totem switching to 72,” is often skipped—leaving the listening boat to wonder if the switch actually happened. Radios can be finicky: transmissions get stepped on, have interference, or just aren’t in range. Did the other boat hear your request to switch to 72? We often use our handheld in the cockpit and it’s awkward to flip back and forth from 16 to 72 to find out.

It doesn’t take long to get into the rhythm of good habits, especially if a newer-to-cruising boat can listen to / model from more experienced boats around them. Home waters were another story: our US sojourn was a good reminder not to take VHF protocol and etiquette for granted. A petty spat over the airwaves is unpleasant. Repeated calls on channel 16 by boaters requesting radio checks get old fast. If a boat is speeding or tossing a big wake in a slow or no wake zone, swearing at them out on the radio accomplishes nothing (and is an offense for which you may be fined!). You can always issue a Sécurité call, and be sure to mention the boat by name as a hazard to navigation.

Off Samana on VHF with Akira

This article was syndicated from Sailing Totem


  1. Damon Cruz

    In the Sea of Cortez, most cruisers are pretty professional (with some bitchy exceptions) and the Baja Ha-Ha publishes a guide to radio and anchoring norms for the newbies. The local fishermen, on the other hand, lend a certain amount of informality and “color” to the airwaves but we do not often overlap on the frequencies used. In their case, they were here first and the authorities do not waste time enforcing ‘such little details’ except for abuse of Ch. 16 and 13.

    As for power vs. antenna, I have had VHF conversations with a harbormaster 75-80 miles away, and in the middle of the sea one can routinely hear vessel and harbor control traffic from over 100 miles away. The lack of static/interference away from harbors is probably a big factor, but antenna maintenance and testing is a must item for those who do not have SSB.

  2. A. Flores, KF6SDY

    Soething that has always puzzled me: As a HAM radio operator I can purchase a VHF radio for the Amateur band with at least 50 watts max and typically a 10 and 5 watt setting. Heck, the more powerful 65 and 75 watt models are now commonplace. But as a sailor I can only buy and transmit at a maximum of 25 watts. Now if any radio was likely to someday be used in an emergency it is probably the Marine VHF. (I expect some HAM operators would make the argument that amateurs do sometimes use their radios during times of natural disasters too, not to take away anything from RACES etc.) I have always wondered why Marine VHF radios are built to only put out 25Watts. While it is true that with “line of sight” radio waves the taller antenna mast is what really matters it sure would not hurt to have that extra power to be heard.

  3. Stacy Morris

    Thank you for taking the time to write this article.
    I do agree that VHF usage is harsh on the ears, especially in certain locations and times of the year. Unfortunately the current method of handling this method of abuse to our airways isn’t producing the positive results we would all like to see. I wish I had an answer to solve this.
    I will say, I do add the channel I’m hailing on at the end of my hail for the very reasons others have sighted.

  4. Eric Takakjian

    Love the photo of the Sailor VHF radio, those were great radios. Had them on a number of offshore supply boats and tugs I worked on years ago.
    i agree listening to the VHF radio in the US during the summer is painful at best. A good place to start for recreational boaters is to obtain a marine radio operators license. Although not required for recreational boat operators it is a good way to learn proper radio protocol while at the same time obtaining a credential.

  5. Joe Erwin

    Good refresher… hope this is picked up by more than a few!! I also am sensitive to the High and Low transmission output with boats in proximity

  6. Tom Hale

    Good article. One thought on the initial VHF hail. Modern radios scan several channels and I monitor 16, 9, 13 and 68. . If you are calling me, I appreciate if you include the calling channel. Tadhana, Tadhana , Tadhana, Totem 16. This tells me where to go to reply. Lots of us use 9 for contact now, commercial traffic calls on 13, so mentioning the calling channel really helps me. PS, was nice to meet you and your family in Southport. I enjoy following your travels.

  7. Rob S

    I was taught to end the conversation with either your operator ID number (back when we had to register our VHF as a radio station) or end it using your hall numbers with the letter K preceding, e.g. K-OH-1234 Out. This gives an identifier to the broadcasting boats (in the case of obnoxious or obscene language there is a way to report it). But that is only my openion.

  8. Joe Valinoti Chief Radioman, USNR (RET)

    Nice article, but it’s missing something very important – only use high power when necessary otherwise everyone within 20 miles (less or more) can’t use that channel when you’re transmitting. Also, the pro-word “Out” does not mean you’re shutting your radio off, it means you’re finished with the conversation. It’s also a good idea to identify the channel you are on when calling as some stations monitor more then one and won’t know what channel to respond on unless you tell them.

  9. Jro

    Using talking to poor boaters as an example as how not to talk on the radio is not productive. Mayby suggestion on how to talk and respond to irresponsible boaters would be a lot more instructive

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