Boating is easy on big open water, or when you’re mostly alone offshore. “One whistle, captain,” when passing another vessel in the channel is an easy traffic day. But what about when you are in a crowded port with boats of all sizes and types on the move?
Any time you are in close quarters with other traffic, communication is key, and knowing when and how to listen in — and chime in if you need to — will make you a better and safer operator of your relatively small vessel when you’re out there with the big boys.
My experience at the helm is limited, so I asked the saltiest of my friends — experienced and professional mariners to be sure — their advice on using VHF radios effectively when boating in target-rich environments.
With well over 40 years on the water running commercial and government vessels, and more than a few stints on the podium teaching the pros how to be professional, Captain Michael Carr (the kind of “Captain” I truly admire) laid out five points he thinks all recreational boaters should consider when faced with heavy VHF radio traffic.
“First of all, listening to the radio does you no good if you don’t know where you are at all times. The first order of business is to always know your location. Be constantly aware of which buoy you’re next to, the name of the channel you are in or are crossing and which point of land is closest,” Carr says. “You really want to have a lock on your location in high-traffic areas.” This is critical if you are to effectively put Carr’s next suggestion to work.
“You want to use that position to orient yourself in time and space so you can visualize where you are in relation to the commercial calls,” Carr says. “Anticipate the location of commercial vessels by focusing on their direction and speed. ‘Outbound making 23 knots approaching Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel North Island’ should indicate 2.3 miles every 6 minutes and limited room to maneuver.”
“Correlate the VHF radio calls with what you see. Look around. Locate the ship making the call. Ask yourself if the visual and verbal match. Don't force the two relationships, but confirm or deny them,” Carr says. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I looking at the correct vessel? Running lights? Aspect ratio?’ If you are not sure, then you need to start talking to those around you and make sure.”
Carr also recommends, “If when listening to a VHF radio call you determine that your position will be part of the equation then formulate your thoughts, determine your obligations under COLREGS and make a concise, factual and useful call to the commercial ship, such as, ‘M/V Vittone this is the yellow-hulled S/V Carr 2.5 miles off your port bow in vicinity of green buoy 7. I am heading southwest under sail, but will slow, stay outside the channel and allow you to pass prior to crossing Thimble Shoal Channel. S/V Carr standing by on Channel 13. Out.’”
Lastly, Carr says skippers should use OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) to keep a continuous mental loop of your situation at all times. he says, “Listen, visualize, orient, decide, act. Start over. Switch channels as necessary. If coming up a channel into a busy harbor consult the Coast Pilot and monitor Channel 13 and the pilot board channel. Use multiple VHF radios, or put your radio on scan.”
A Master Unlimited Oceans skipper and founder of gCaptain.com, a website for professional maritime news, Captain John Konrad agrees with Carr’s advice and adds some strong advice of his own. “Boaters should be cognizant of basic pilot boarding areas and VTS call in zones (and frequencies), which are usually depicted on the chart.”
Konrad says that many recreational boaters will only tune in and turn up their VHF radios when they feel it is necessary, but the pros monitor theirs 24/7. If you are underway, your VHF radio should be on and monitoring Channel 16. “They often miss “pan-pan” and “sécurité” calls because they aren’t paying attention,” Konrad says. “It can be frustrating for the big ship captains to watch small vessels with skippers who clearly aren’t listening to their VHF radios."
“Personally, I usually run dual-watch on my boat,” Konrad says. “I run with one channel set to 16 and the other to the local working frequency. If I need another channel I’ll set it up on a handheld.”
Konrad has one last personal plea that Carr gave a fast “Amen” to. “Please familiarize yourself with the 1-watt transmit button on your VHF radio,” Konrad begs. "When calling a launch 100 yards to starboard, using full power sends your call to vessels 20 miles away and creates needless chatter that confuses other boaters." Konrad says an even better option is to use your handheld VHF radio to talk with nearby traffic.
The next time you’re in heavy traffic, come up on the VHF radio. Heck, come up on two of them. Then remember the advice of my two salty friends. VHF radios make you safer when operating in heavy traffic, but only if you use them the right way.