Say Again: Use Your VHF Radio Correctly

There are many different ways to embarrass yourself while sailing. Having fenders hanging over your topsides or large scallops in your mainsail between the slides are two popular examples. Another is to use improper radio procedures. This demonstrates your incompetence not only to those who can see you, but to everyone within 20 miles.

I am constantly frustrated by the poor procedures I hear being used over VHF radio. I served as a Signal Corps officer in the military, but this is not really why it bothers me so much. Avoiding looking like a neophyte is one good reason to follow proper radio procedures; a better one is that it just might save your life.

Most radio lingo has evolved from military and ham communications. Such transmissions are often made in difficult conditions and at times may be a matter of life or death. The same is true when there’s an emergency on your boat. If you use standard phrases and protocol and keep your messages short, it’s more likely your message will get through and be understood.

Military and ham radio operators use standard phrases called “prowords” and a phonetic alphabet with which most sailors should be familiar. There are differences between civilian and military protocols, and over the years military practice has changed, but any combination of commonly used prowords, current and past, will work just fine. Here are some simple tips that will help out.

Common mistakes

Never use the police “10” code. It was never intended to be used under difficult conditions and is easy to misunderstand. Likewise, you should never use CB lingo. This is the ultimate gaffe. You should also never use the hackneyed phrase “over and out.” These are two different prowords that in fact are contradictory. If you’ve completed a transmission and want a reply, you should say “over.” If you’re done talking and want no reply, you should say “out.”

When transmitting over short distances, keep your radio on low power. This reduces the area over which you will tie up the channel you are transmitting on. With some equipment, it also avoids over-driving a nearby receiver and causing distortion. When you’re not using your radio, leave it on high power. That way, if you suddenly need to broadcast in an emergency, the radio will be ready to transmit over its maximum range.

Many amateur operators get nervous and talk quickly without realizing it. Whenever you’re transmitting, in an emergency or otherwise, stay calm and speak slowly and distinctly, one word at a time. Keep the mic an inch or so away from your mouth and try to stay out of the wind.

If you have to spell out a word, always use the phonetic alphabet. Though tedious, it is the most powerful way to be understood. If you haven’t memorized it, paste a copy right by your radio. Numbers should always be digital: “six-eight,” for example, instead of “sixty-eight.” All numbers should be pronounced in the normal manner, except for “nine,” which is pronounced “niner.” “Three” is best pronounced as two syllables: “thu-ree.”


Initiating and answering calls

When hailing another boat or station, repeat its name two or three times, then state your vessel’s name. For example: “Voyager, Voyager, Voyager, this is Sea Smoke.” While the first use of the boat or station name may catch their attention, they often won’t be sure they are the party being hailed. After the initial hail, once is enough: “Voyager this is Sea Smoke.” The proper reply to a hail is simply “Sea Smoke, Voyager.”

Channel 16 is the common VHF hailing frequency; it is also an emergency channel, so it should not be used for conversation. To minimize time spent on 16, a good way to return a hail is to immediately designate a working channel. For example: “Sea Smoke, Voyager, switch channel six-niner.” The other boat should reply “Roger, switching six-niner.”

If someone says they “copy” your message, it does not mean they have written it down, or even that they understood it. They simply are indicating that they hear you. They also may say, “I read” or “I hear.” If you want to know how well they hear you, you ask, “How do you hear/read/copy?” The reply is “I hear loud and clear” or “weak and distorted,” or any combination thereof. Some people still use the five code. “I copy 5 by 5” means loud and clear; “1 by 1” means weak and distorted.

If you want to know whether your radio is working properly, don’t hail the Coast guard and ask for a radio check. They have their plates full already. Instead, hail a commercial towing company. Most will rush to answer you.
In addition to “out,” “over” and “I hear” or “I copy,” there are several other useful prowords you should learn to use when conversing on the radio:

Say again: repeat your last transmission.

Say again all after( ): repeat your last transmission starting with the word or phrase ( ).

Stand by: Cease transmissions but monitor this channel.

Standing by: Affirmative reply to a request to stand by. It is not necessary to state the channel, unless it is different from the one on which you are communicating. Instead of saying “out,” some people like to sign off by saying, “Standing by on channel 16.” This is not necessary. It is understood you will return to 16 unless another channel is designated.

Roger: Indicates agreement. If it is a reply to instructions, it indicates compliance.

Affirmative and negative: These are best used rather than “yes” or “no.”

Emergency procedures

The popular proword “Mayday” (from the French m’aidez for “help me”) is overused, if not abused. It is not to be used when you run out of fuel. Mayday indicates you are in a life-threatening emergency and require immediate assistance. When making a Mayday call, state your vessel’s name, its position, the nature of the emergency and the number of people onboard.

“Pan-Pan” (pronounced “Pon-Pon”) indicates a potentially life-threatening emergency and that you would like others to monitor your status until the situation is resolved. In many cases, people making Mayday calls should instead be making Pan-Pan calls. Again, identify your vessel and its position, and state the nature of the problem and how many are aboard.

If the Coast Guard wishes to work an emergency situation on Channel 16, it will declare “Silence Mayday” (pronounced “See-lonce Mayday,” from the French). At this point all other traffic on 16 should cease until the Coast Guard releases the channel. When the Coast Guard reopens the channel it will declare “Silence Fini” (“See-lonce Finee”) or “Silence Prudence” (“See-lonce Pru-donce”). Other parties seeking to keep a channel clear for emergency communications should call “Silence Distress” (“See-lonce Distress”).

“Securite” (pronounced “Sea-cur-i-tay”) indicates you wish to share information concerning safety. For example, when entering an inlet with compromised maneuvering ability, you might hail all stations on Channel 16 as follows: “Securite. Securite. This is sailing vessel Sea Smoke entering Jones Inlet. I am restricted in my ability to maneuver. Please stand clear.” It is also a common practice to make periodic Securite calls when operating in the fog, giving your position, course and destination.

Though it’s no longer necessary to give your call sign each time you use the radio, it is still a good idea to use it (assuming you have one) when making emergency calls, as it will clearly identify your boat. There may, for example, be a number of Voyagers in the vicinity, but only one Whiskey Romeo Bravo Six Zero Niner Two.

A final point: The controls on a VHF radio are simple, but the squelch control is particularly important. This is used to eliminate static when the radio is on standby. If the squelch is turned up too high, important messages may go unheard. Good practice is to reset the squelch every time you turn on the radio. First turn down the squelch until you hear static. Set your volume control using the static. Then turn up the squelch until the static just disappears. When communicating over long ranges, turn the squelch off.

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