Tune In, Turn On

Odds are good you could be making better use of your VHF radio in busy ports
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Pro captains encourage leisure skippers to monitor the VHF radio at all times.

Pro captains encourage leisure skippers to monitor the VHF radio at all times.

Boating is easy to do 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? Knowing how to listen to the VHF radio will make you a better and safer skipper when you’re out there with the big boys. My experience at the helm is limited, so I asked the saltiest of my friendsfor their advice on using VHF radios.

With more than 40 years running commercial and government vessels, Capt. Michael Carr says there are a few key points all recreational boaters should consider when faced with heavy VHF radio traffic. “Listening to the radio does you no good if you don’t know where you are at all times,” he says. “So, the first order of business is to 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.”

This information is critical if you are to 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.” He encourages boaters to anticipate the location of commercial vessels by focusing on direction and speed. If a voice on the radio says, “Outbound making 23 knots approaching Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel North Island,” the words indicate 2.3 miles every 6 minutes and limited room to maneuver.

“Correlate the VHF radio calls with what you see,” Carr says. Look around. Locate the ship making the call. Ask yourself if the visual and verbal match. Don’t force the two relationships, but do confirm or deny them. Ask yourself, am I looking at the correct vessel, running lights and aspect ratio? If you’re not sure, start talking to those around you.

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, useful call to the commercial ship, Carr says. In that call, you might say something like this: “M/V Vittone, this is the 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.”

Carr also encourages skippers to make use of the OODA concept (observe, orient, decide, act) to maintain a continuous mental loop of your situation. If you’re coming up a channel into a busy harbor, consult the United States Coast Pilot and monitor channel 13 and the pilot board channel. Use multiple VHF radios, or put your radio on scan.

Capt. John Konrad, a Master Unlimited Oceans skipper and founder of gCaptain.com (a website for professional maritime news), has a few tips of his own. “Boaters should be cognizant of basic pilot-boarding areas and VTS [vessel traffic service] call-in zones and frequencies, which are usually depicted on the chart,” he says.

Konrad says many recreational boaters tune in and turn up their VHF radios only when they feel it is necessary, but the pros monitor theirs 24/7. If you’re underway, your VHF should be monitoring channel 16. “People 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 radios. On my boat, I run with one channel set to 16 and the other to the local working frequency.”

Konrad also implores recreational boaters to get familiar with the 1-watt transmit button on a VHF radio. “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,” he says. A better option is to use your handheld VHF radio to talk with nearby traffic.  

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue.