Tune In: VHF Radio Tips For High Traffic Areas

Knowing how to properly communicate with others using your VHF radio makes you a safer boater, and the water a safer place to be for everyone else. 

Knowing how to properly communicate with others using your VHF radio makes you a safer boater, and the water a safer place to be for everyone else. 

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.”

Captain Michael Carr

Captain Michael Carr

“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.”

Captain John Konrad

Captain John Konrad

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.



Preparing For That One Bad Day

When you hear the name Chesley Sullenberger, competence and heroic calm under enormous pressure come to mind, don’t they? Sullenberger, who expertly piloted stricken US Airways Flight 1549 to a 155-life-saving landing on the Hudson River, will long be remembered as the very picture of experience. He was a flight instructor, developed vital flight safety programs and amassed an enormous number of safe flying hours. The passengers aboard Flight 1549 couldn’t have asked for a better pilot on that morning in January 2009.


Why Go It Alone?

Self-reliance is one thing many boat owners embrace, but that ethos could get you into trouble, writes Mario Vittone. p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; line-height: 11.0px; font: 39.5px 'Meta Serif Pro'} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; line-height: 11.0px; font: 9.0px 'Meta Serif Pro'} p.p3 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; text-indent: 8.0px; line-height: 11.0px; font: 9.0px 'Meta Serif Pro'} span.s1 {letter-spacing: 0.6px} span.s2 {letter-spacing: 0.1px} T here was a time when leaving sight of land came with a good chance of never seeing it again. Before the invention of the marine chronometer to determine longitude, going over the horizon was a risky move. Even with accurate charts and a watch, the sea remained deadly; so deadly that the raised platforms known as widow’s walks on New England homes got their name from the sea captains’ wives, who would pace their rooftops, looking seaward for ships that never returned. Without VHF radios or radar, anyone who sailed offshore was truly on his own. Self-reliance wasn’t a romantic, Emersonian notion; it was a condition. Sailors had only themselves. I’ve met countless sailors who do their best to hold on to the traditional notion of being on their own out there. They speak of self-reliance as part of the appeal of being far offshore, alone in the world with only their skill and wits to protect them. They speak of it as a decision they made to be independent. When I was working in search and rescue, these sailors were the ones who always called at the last possible minute; but they always called. These are the guys who often say silly things like, “Never step off until you have to step up.” They were the first ones to send hate mail when I suggested that being alone in a life raft without having made a distress call meant a sailor had screwed up (“The Truth About Survival Training,” August 2019). “What about a lighting strike that causes a fire?” one man complained. “I guess you’ve never heard of anyone hitting a deadhead in the middle of the night,” another offered. Those who fancy themselves to be like the sailors of yore said I was wrong. Self-reliance, they wanted; blame, not so much. Now, I’m no sailor. While I do love boats and have spent a few years working on them, the bulk of my exposure to modern boating has been through search and rescue. For a long time, I was only on boats that were in distress following a call for help. Perhaps that skews me to one side of this argument, but given that experience, I believe this: The idea that you are self-reliant out there can get you killed, while the idea that everything is your fault is vital to your safety. We are connected in ways our great-great-grandfathers could never have imagined. Our radios can talk to each other. Our boats have alarms and pumps connected to apps on phones. We do not watch from rooftops for sails on the horizon; we log on to websites for real-time information. We are not alone out there anymore. But, make mistakes at sea, and you will, one way or another, invite people ashore to join you in your “self-reliant” adventure. We must never lose the sense of absolute personal responsibility for our own safety. There are rare situations where lightning strikes and submerged containers cause unforeseeable situations, but they are no reason to abandon modern tools and procedures. We don’t take off our seat belts just because there is only a slim chance that oncoming traffic may swerve into our lane. The answer to the rare disaster we can’t predict in boating is a float plan and communication prior to the mishap. I think the last great gains to be made in boating safety are in how we think about being on the water. If you still believe in self-reliance, then Godspeed, but keep your VHF radio on, if only so that your loved ones aren’t walking the rooftops, hoping for your return.


The Two Ways to Handle a MOB

There's a 40 percent chance you'll never be seen again — alive or dead —if you fall overboard at sea. It is perhaps the most dangerous boating situation you can find yourself in, writes Mario Vittone in this week's Lifelines: Safety And Rescue At Sea blog.