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Radio Check: Using your VHF Correctly

Written by Lt. Cmdr. Connie Braesch.

Knowing how to reach the Coast Guard in an emergency is an important step in getting help quickly. Dialing 9-1-1 may be the best for an emergency on land, but not on the water. Boaters should use marine two-way radios, not cell phones. These broadcast radios allow everyone to listen; whereas a phone call only goes to the number dialed.

Okay, so you have your two-way marine radio. But, how do you know which frequency to use? Choosing the right radio channel or frequency can be confusing.

What is VHF and when do you use it?

Very High Frequency, or VHF, is for emergency and routine line of sight for communications over short distances. Channel 16, is the voice distress channel monitored by the Coast Guard and your fellow boaters on VHF. It is very important to monitor Channel 16; it may save your life or someone else’s. Channel 70 is the digital equivalent of Channel 16, providing your location and identity on a properly configure VHF digital selective calling, or DSC, radios. A complete list of channels can be found at the Coast Guard Navigation Center’s Website.

What is HF and when do you use it?

Petty Officer 1st Class Ramona Mason, an operations specialist, monitors radio traffic in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Bradshaw.

High Frequency, or HF, is for emergency and routine beyond line of sight for communications. Unlike VHF which can be heard up to 20 nautical miles, HF calls can travel over great distances from hundreds to thousands of mile due to signal bouncing and atmospheric conditions. In general the Coast Guard and professional mariners monitor frequencies between 4 and 25 megahertz. An exact listing of frequencies can be found at the Coast Guard Navigation Center’s Website.

What is MF and when do you use it?

The Medium Frequency, or MF, distress frequency is found on 2182 kilohertz. While the Coast Guard will no longer monitor the MF distress frequency as of August 1, 2013, mariners can alternatively use HF radio frequencies or Digital Select Calling in the 4 to 12 megahertz bands.

Are there other ways to contact the Coast Guard in an emergency?

The International Maritime Organization, Coast Guard and Federal Communications Commission strongly recommend the use of a 406 megahertz Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, or EPIRB, to indicate a distress situation. EPIRBs are satellite-based and route your identification and position to the appropriate rescue authority. In addition to your location, a properly registered beacon provides owner identity, vessel description and emergency points of contact to the rescue authority.

All clear now? If not, drop a comment below and we’ll get back to you. Understanding how to reach the Coast Guard is important to getting help in an emergency and we want everyone to have a safe boating season.

- See more at: Coast Guard Compass: VHF Radio Chaeck

Radio Check: Using your VHF Correctly