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.
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.