I spent the formative years of my boating life on a landlocked, freshwater lake in inland Maine, far from the influence of the FCC’s bureaucracy and the United States Coast Guard’s regulatory influence. Everyone had VHF radios and used them like CB radios in some 1970s trucker flick. “That’s a big 10-4, good buddy. Come back!” We were all blissfully ignorant of proper VHF use, and though our ‘methods’ often were non-standard, that probably didn’t matter since the foothills of western Maine completely sheltered the lake from coastal transmissions and prevented transmissions on the lake from interfering with coastal marine radio traffic. No one maintained the required watch on VHF 16 or 9 (yes, 9 is an option—more on that later). Boaters on the lake gravitated to certain channels in an almost high-school clique-like manner—and we liked it that way.

vhf radio
Your VHF radio might seem intimidating, even scary at times, but it doesn't have to be. Courtesy of Argo 

Eventually, I bought a bigger boat and transitioned to coastal cruising. Not completely ignorant of the rules, I dutifully tuned the VHF on our new boat to 16 and started hearing the box belch forth some very official-sounding transmissions from the Coast Guard. I also heard the local coasties chiding nearby boaters for misuse of 16: “Channel 16 is for hailing and distress only. Shift your traffic. US Coast Guard Sector OUT!” I quickly developed a near-phobia of even picking up the microphone.

I remember when we first cast off lines to cruise the boat to Florida, we were underway on the Cape Fear River, where we purchased the boat, and we were hailed by a Coast Guard cutter well off our stern. Gingerly, I picked up the microphone and answered the hail. The cutter was calling to make passing arrangements—they were coming up fast and wanted to overtake us safely on our port side. This was my introduction on how to observe Rule 34, using the radio. On the lake, we would just pass or be passed. This was suddenly getting much more complicated, and I wasn’t sure I liked it.

That evening, I scoured the internet and my well-thumbed copy of the Rules of the Road and vowed to get over my burgeoning fear of improperly using the VHF. I began reading everything I could about using the radio, but most of the articles and guides were geared toward what to say—“securité, pan pan, mayday, over, out, etc.”—but I didn’t find a lot of information about how to properly use the radio. Gradually, I grew more confident with the marine squawk box, but not before making loads of mistakes that I now witness boaters making every day, and it’s those mistakes that I’ll now enumerate in the hope of helping the radio-reticent among us.

Maintaining a Radio Watch

This is the big one, which is why it’s first. Keeping a radio watch means far more than many people realize. On its face, of course, it means keeping your radio tuned to VHF 16. Alternatively, you can monitor VHF 9 instead or in addition to 16. I will sometimes switch to monitoring 9 in areas such as the ICW in Florida where all the drawbridges are also on 9, or in cases where a boat nearby has an “open mic” situation and is consequently saturating the airwaves on 16 and making the channel virtually unusable in that area. 

There are instances when you really need to keep watch on other channels as well, and if you don’t have a multi-watch capable radio or a scan feature, you will need a second radio—perhaps a handheld—so that you can maintain your required watch on 16 or 9 and a second watch on another channel. Most frequently, the second channel is 13, which is the designated channel for bridge to bridge (as in “ship’s bridge”) communications. Always monitor 13 in New York City, for instance. New York is a VTS (Vessel Traffic Services) port, and none of the commercial traffic monitor, or are required to monitor, 16. They are all on 13, and the VTS relays any important information to them if something pertinent is happening on 16. The designated VTS channel varies by port, so know the channel for where you are, if you are transiting one of the 12 US VTS ports.

When I transit New York City, I set my handheld radio to 16 to maintain my required watch and tune my main radio to 13 to communicate with commercial traffic. Doing this probably saved lives the last time I came through. I was coming down the East River from Long Island Sound and had just come through Hell Gate when I answered a hail from a tug and barge. He was coming through behind me on the fair tide and the two slow trawlers ahead of me were not monitoring 13, were not keeping to the right of the channel (as required by Rule 9), and were not responding to his hails on 13. He was hoping that I knew them and was in communication with them, which I didn’t and wasn’t. I picked up my handheld and hailed them on 16 and told them they were about to become a statistic if they didn’t move out of the channel and start monitoring 13. I almost always maintain a dual watch on 13 everywhere since commercial traffic almost always has one of their radios on 13. You should too.

Hailing Other Vessels

Okay, so you know which channels you should be monitoring. What about hailing? You just pick up the mic and start talking on 16, right? That’s the channel for hailing and distress, right? Well, yes… and no. Mostly no.

Channel 16 is the channel you hail on when you have failed to reach a vessel on the “bridge to bridge” channel on which they should also be keeping a watch: VHF 13. Always start there. No, really. Channel 16 is only for hailing and distress, and mostly the Coast Guard prefers that it be kept clear except for emergency use. It’s definitely not for making passing arrangements on inland waterways. The Coast Guard mostly tolerates doing so, but if you do find yourself having to hail on 16 to make passing/meeting arrangements, move to 13 after you have successfully hailed the other vessel. A lot of people move to 17 because it’s easy, but that frequency is set aside for local government use. It’s best to avoid it unless asked by local officials to “move there” for a conversation. Channel 13 is a low-power channel and exists for making arrangements between vessels. Use it.

So to recap: hail on 13 first. No answer? Try 9, since it’s the alternate mandatory watch channel, but has no use restrictions as 16 does. No answer? Reluctantly assume that no one got the memo and then hail on 16 using your radio’s low-power mode (more on that in a moment) and immediately move the conversation to 13 to make your passing/meeting arrangements or exchange whatever other information you need to. 

Use Low-Power Mode

I just alluded to this but try to make it a habit to switch to low-power mode when hailing nearby vessels on 16. VHF radios work in a mode called “half-duplex.” When you are transmitting, you are not listening, and all anyone within range of your transmission can hear is your transmission. A telephone call is full duplex—both parties can talk at the same time. Half-duplex means that when you are not receiving you are transmitting, which is why an open mic problem on another vessel is so annoying. 

Channel 16 is, by a default, a high-power channel because you need that transmission power in an emergency situation (incidentally, channel 13 is a low-power channel—you don’t need 25 watts to transmit less than a mile!), but hailing that five-knot sailboat that you want to pass on the ICW is decidedly not an emergency situation, and switching to low-power mode to hail them may well prevent your half-duplex “local” radio traffic from interfering with a rescue operation somewhere out of receiving range of your radio set. That low power mode button is standard on nearly every VHF radio. Get into the habit of using it for short-range transmissions on high-power channels—especially 16. Doing so could well save lives.

Make Securité Calls

Most recreational vessels can co-exist in most situations, but you never know when you might encounter larger vessels or commercial traffic on a narrow or hazardous passage, and if there is current involved, it’s always best to make a securité call before you pass a “point of no return.” This could be any of the several “Hell Gate” passages, or the Rock Pile near Myrtle Beach on the ICW, or simply transiting a very narrow marina approach. It’s always better to warn other vessels of your intentions and give them a chance to clear the way for you before a situation develops. Make your call on both 13 and 16 (low-power, please). To begin the call, say “securité” three times, or merely say “security call,” express what your vessel will be doing in this hazardous area and how soon, and what channel you will be monitoring for “concerned traffic.” You might say, “Security Call. Motor yacht Rebel Heart will be transiting the Rocky Narrows in approximately four minutes. All concerned traffic contact Rebel Heart on one-three. Rebel Heart out.” 

Be Legal

While you are boating only in US waters, you have an implied FCC license to use your VHF radio(s) on the boat. A VHF radio used as a shore station or from the land has no such implied license and MUST be licensed as a shore station. If you are going ashore and want to stay in contact with the mothership, don’t bring your handheld VHF. Bring a bog-standard walkie talkie or a cellphone to “keep in touch.” If you are traveling in international waters, you need an FCC-issued radio license for your VHF radios. Don’t use your radio in international waters (this includes Canada, Mexico, and the Bahamas) without one. The consequences of unlicensed use of VHF radio frequencies in international waters can include fines and even prison time. It’s not worth it. Such ship-station licenses from the FCC are relatively inexpensive, easily available, and good for 10 years. If you’ll be boating outside of US waters, get a license. 

Radio Checks

There is nothing wrong with requesting a radio check to verify the function of your radio—just don’t do it on VHF 16. Seriously now; don’t do that. The Coast Guard routinely reminds mariners that “channel 16 is for hailing and distress only.” This warning also applies to radio checks. Ask for your radio check on channel 9 or one of the numerous “working channels” such as 68, 69, 71, 72. 


There is much more that could be said on this subject. I could give examples of “what to say” and wax philosophilosophical with regard to the expected lingo of the VHF, but most articles I have read on the subject handle those facets fully. The above really are the biggest little-mentioned mistakes I see boaters making with their VHF radios everyday—and most, if not all, are mistakes I made myself when I first started cruising on coastal waters, ripped directly from the “I wish I had known sooner” files. When we work together and share vital information, we’re all safer on the waves! 

About the Author:

Dave Rowe is a professional musician, full-time cruiser, and an ambassador for the Argo Navigation App. In 2018, he purchased a 38-foot Bayliner motoryacht he named Stinkpot and began to cruise the Great Loop. You can read more about Dave and his partner Stacey's adventures on their Facebook page, “Our Adventures on Stinkpot,” and at aboardstinkpot.com.