Why Should You Carry A VHF Radio – If You Are A Kayaker, Sailor, Paddle Boarder, Personal Water Craft user or Off-Shore Fishermen

Regularly at community events our team are asked why should you carry a VHF radio if you are a kayaker, dingy sailor, paddle boarder, personal water craft user, or off-shore fishermen when they could use their mobile phone instead if they get into difficulty?  Even if you are not going far offshore you might not be able to get a mobile phone signal.  Wet mobile phones don’t work very well and who knows what sea or weather conditions you may experience. 

More specialist equipment may be needed to ensure that if you find yourself in difficulty you can easily alert the HM Coastguard so that they can deploy the appropriate search and rescue assets to locate you quickly.  Tracking someone’s position when a call is made using a mobile phone is difficult, whereas the VHF radio it is much easier.  

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National Maritime Operation Centre (NMOC) Photo credit: HM Coastguard

A handheld VHF radio Radio is a vital piece of safety kit for all mariners who venture out on the water whether offshore or on our inland waterways such as canals, lakes or rivers. VHF marine radio’s are used for a variety of purposes: speaking with harbour & marina control, alerting the Coastguard to an incident, weather information, ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship communication.  

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A handheld VHF radio is a fairly inexpensive piece of safety kit to buy and are relatively simple to use under pressure.  There is a multitude of good quality radio’s on the market and can be purchased over the internet without the need to visit a supplier in person. If you purchase a VHF radio it is recommended by both the HM Coastguard and RNLI that you get one that is Digital Selective Calling (DSC) equipped.

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DSC button on the rear of this VHF radio

This is a red coloured button that when pressed sends out a pre-defined automated signal of the vessel’s location via medium frequency (MF), high frequency (HF) and very high frequency (VHF) maritime radio systems. It is a core part of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) and is a recognised emergency signal.  The more newer models will also send your GPS co-ordinates as well.

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Ramsgate’s All Weather Lifeboat Photo credit: Ramsgate Lifeboat

After pressing the DSC button the vessel/craft/person will need to make a mayday voice call (Mayday is the international signal to notify a life-threatening distress situation) on Channel 16. Channel 16 is the universal emergency channel monitored continuously by HM coastguard and other nearby vessels. This communicates the distress message to the Coastguard, all vessels and shore stations in range. The message should contain:

  • Name of your craft or vessel (if applicable)
  • Your call sign (if applicable)
  • Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) – 9 digit registered number helps identify your vessel
  • Your position – It can be given in either Latitude and Longitude or as the bearing and distance from a known geographic point
  • Nature of your distress
  • Number of people on board including the radio operator
  • Ask for immediate assistance
  • Any other information – This should include any information that might help the SAR authorities locate the vessel and assist in the distress. Such as the vessel’s colour, type of craft, the activation of an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon), flares etc.. It is also helpful to give the rate and direction of drift if this is applicable.

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Grave and Imminent Danger

A Mayday call is only to be used in the case of “grave and imminent danger to a vessel or persons, such as vessel sinking, MOB (man-over-board) or fire”. A Mayday call is considered to be so serious that in many countries anyone communicating a false Mayday call could be prosecuted in the courts. It is solely intended to save lives.

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The operation of a VHF radio requires by law a SRC (Short Range Certificate) operator’s licence and a Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number, which comes with the radio licence. The course instructs users in radio etiquette and procedure. The operation of a VHF radio itself is a fairly straightforward course which also teaches you about digital selective calling (DSC) functionality and emergency procedures.

You can find out where your nearest radio course is run by checking out this link

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Kayakers, personal watercraft users and dingy sailors maybe concerned about the amount of space that a radio takes up, that the battery life doesn’t last long and that it could get wet.  Many of the VHF handheld radio’s on the market are buoyant, waterproof and have a long battery life ideal incase of an emergency situation arising.

Keep Your Radio Close At Hand

It is essential to keep the VHF radio close to hand and not stowed in a dry bag in your kayak or craft.  Several kayakers have very sadly died as they couldn’t access their handheld radio or mobile phone to call for help when they got into difficulty at the coast.

In what situations do you use a Pan-Pan call?

Your may craft or vessel may have broken down and you have been left floating for some time, or have suffered significant structural damage to your craft that means your progress is very slow. Someone on board may have been taken ill, but their condition is not immediately life threatening these are the types of incidents to use a Pan-Pan call.

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Repeating the Pan-Pan call three times says to other sailors/craft/Coastguard “it is serious we need assistance but there isn’t a grave and imminent danger to the boat or anyone on board”.  For a pan-pan call the red DSC button should not be activated, but is still broadcast on channel 16 on high power. Much of the information you would provide in a Mayday call you will still need to communicate in a Pan-Pan call:

Name of vessell, Your call sign, MMSI, location, the distress nature and your intended action.  

Thank you for reading this blog and we hope that it has been useful. Stay safe!

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Acknowledgements

RYA

RNLI

HM Coastguard

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More useful links

Kayaker and canoeists safety advice – Thanet RNLI Community Safety

Calling for help at the coast, but which device should I get – Thanet RNLI Community Safety

Inland Waterways Association – why do we need VHF

Marine Radio – Short Range Certificate (SRC)