Let’s face it, most of us spend more money than we’d care to admit purchasing not only our kayaks but all of the gear we tote along with us on our fishing excursions. But, not all of us have purchased a VHF radio and carry it with us every time our kayaks get wet. The cost of a VHF radio is small compared to many of the other purchases we make without hardly even thinking about it and the value could be incomparable to even the smallest kayak fishing purchase you have ever made.

A high quality and extremely portable hand-held VHF radio can be had for well under $100.00 and it could mean your life or that of a friend. Even if you never need to place an emergency call you may hear the call of a fellow kayaker in need in your close proximity. The up to the minute weather updates are also invaluable. Cell phones are great but don’t offer all of these benefits, not to mention they aren’t waterproof (resistant actually) like most VHF radios. Cell phones ARE NOT a viable alternative to a VHF radio as safety equipment.

Okay, so you have a VHF radio....what do you do with it? First off, bring it with you on every trip. Most radios have a JIS7 rating which simply means they can survive complete submersion in 3 feet of water for 30 minutes. However, some still keep their radios in a waterproof bag, not a bad idea so long as it is the type of bag which will not interfere with the radio's operation. Mine just stays in my PDF pocket (yes they are that small, my Standard Horizon HX270s is 2.3" x 3.7" x 1.2"...no excuses there!).

In addition to your VHF radio you will also need to carry a compass and preferably a GPS as well. If you ever need emergency assistance, help will need to know where to find you. Be versed in the usage of a compass and your GPS. An emergency situation is not the time to try to figure out how to read your GPS coordinates or get a compass reading. A PDF strobe light like the ACR C-Light would also assist rescuers in finding you in a hurry especially in low light conditions.

Since October 26, 1996 the FCC has not required an individual license for voluntary ships/crafts operating domestically which are not required by law to carry a VHF radio. We, as kayakers fall into this category so no license is required. However, the FCC regulates marine communications in cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard, which monitors marine distress frequencies continuously to protect life and property. All users of marine radios are responsible for observing both FCC and Coast Guard requirements. Failure to use your VHF radio properly can result in anything from a stern warning to a hefty fine or even imprisonment depending on the severity of the violation.

Prohibited communications...

You must never transmit -
l False distress or emergency messages.
l Messages containing obscene, indecent, or profane words or meaning.
l General calls, signals, or messages on channel 16, except in an emergency or if you are testing your radio, or
l When your boat is on land.

Operating procedures...

Even though a license is not required, you must follow the operating procedures for calling other stations, maintaining a safety watch, and relaying distress messages as specified in the FCC rules.

The FCC allows you to identify yourself over the air using an FCC-issued call sign, maritime mobile service identity, the state registration number of your boat, or the name of your boat. As most kayakers don’t have any of the above, I suggest just using your true name or NEKF user name depending on the circumstances.

So what channels can we use and what can we use them for?

Even though your VHF radio has many channels, only certain channels are authorized for your use. The marine VHF channels are divided into operational categories, based on the types of messages that are appropriate for each channel, and are available for the shared use of all boaters. You must choose a channel that is available for the type of message you want to transmit.

Channel 16 is the distress, safety and calling channel - use this channel to get the attention of another station (calling) or in emergencies (distress and safety). Channel 16 should be monitored at all times as this channel is not only used for distress calls but also for Coast Guard emergency broadcasts ie. weather alerts. As a calling frequency, this channel is primarily used for contacting commercial vessels.

Channel 9 The FCC established channel 9 as a supplementary calling channel for recreational boaters. In the First Coast Guard District waters (northern New Jersey, New York and New England) urgent marine information broadcasts and storm warnings are announced on this channel as well as channel 16. Channel 9 should be your primary contact channel to contact another recreational boater.

Calling Coast Stations. You should contact an individual coast station on it’s assigned channel if you know it. If not, you may use Channel 16 and will be directed to the appropriate channel.

Channel 22A is the Coast Guard Liaison Channel. It is, in effect, their "working channel" for communications with boaters. If you call the Coast Guard on channel 16, expect to be moved to 22A.

Calling other boats (kayaks). You may contact other boats on Channel 16 (commercial) or Channel 9 (recreational) unless you know that they are monitoring another channel. It is best to stay off of Channel 16 and leave it open for emergency usage. If you do use channel 16 or channel 9 to contact another boat, certain specific procedures must be followed as detailed below.

Channels 68, 69, 71, 72, and 78A are available for boat to boat communication.

NEKF has established channel 69 as its primary channel for contacting fellow kayakers.


What are the marine emergency signals?

The three spoken international emergency signals are:

1. MAYDAY - The distress signal MAYDAY is used to indicate that a station is threatened by grave and imminent danger and requests immediate assistance.
2. PAN PAN - (pronounced "pon-pon"). The urgency signal PAN PAN is used when the safety of the ship or person is in jeopardy.
3. SECURITE - (pronounced as "SAY–CURE-IT-TAY") The safety signal SECURITE is used for messages about the safety of navigation or important weather warnings.

When using an international emergency signal, the appropriate signal is to be spoken three times prior to the message.

You must give any message beginning with one of these signals priority over routine messages.

Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Distress call procedures.

Procedure for VHF Channel 16 MAYDAY:

1. Select channel 16 on your VHF radio.
2. Transmit the distress signal "MAYDAY", spoken three times.
3. The words "THIS IS", spoken once.
4. Name of vessel in distress (spoken three times) and call sign or boat registration number, spoken once.
5. Repeat "MAYDAY" and name of vessel, spoken once.
6. Give position of vessel by latitude or longitude or by bearing (true or magnetic, state which) and distance to a well-know landmark such as a navigational aid or small island, or in any terms which will assist a responding station in locating the vessel in distress. Include any information on vessel movement such as course, speed and destination.
7. Nature of distress (sinking, injury etc.).
8. Kind of assistance desired.
9. Number of persons on board.
10. Any other information which might facilitate rescue, such as a description of your kayak including color, number of persons needing medical attention, color of your pdf, etc.
11. The word "OVER"

Stay by the radio if possible. Even after the message has been received, the Coast Guard can find you more quickly if you can transmit a signal on which a rescue boat or aircraft can home.

For example:

This is blue duck-blue duck-blue duck
Cape henry light bears 185 degrees magnetic-distance 2 miles
Struck submerged object
Need pumps-medical assistance and tow
Three adults, two children on board
One person compound fracture of arm
Estimate can remain afloat two hours
Blue duck is thirty two foot cabin cruiser-white hull-blue deck house

Repeat at intervals until an answer is received.

MAYDAY Misuse.
A growing number of boaters unsuccessful in getting a radio check on VHF channel 16 are calling MAYDAY to get a response. Every hoax, including MAYDAY radio checks, is subject to prosecution as a Class D felony under Title 14, Section 85 of the U.S. Code, liable for a $5,000 fine plus all costs the Coast Guard incurs as a result of the individual's action. Since hoaxes can lead to loss of life, the Coast Guard and Federal Communications Commission will work closely together, using when necessary FCC equipment capable of identifying the electronic signature of the offending radio.

Procedure for Calling A Boat by Radio

Channel 16 may be used for initial contact (hailing) with a commercial vessel while Channel 9 may be used for initial contact (hailing) with a recreational boater. However, channel 16's most important use is for emergency messages. This channel (16) must be monitored at all times except when actually using another channel. It is monitored by the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards and by other vessels. Use of channels 16 and 9 for hailing must be limited to initial contact only. Calling should not exceed 30 seconds, but may be repeated 3 times at 2- minute intervals.

Prior to making contact with another vessel, select an appropriate channel for communications after initial contact. Remember that channels 68, 69, 71, 72, and 78A are the channels available to non-commercial (recreational) boaters. Monitor your desired channel in advance to make sure you will not be interrupting other traffic, and then go back to either channel 16 or 9 for your initial contact.

When the hailing channel (16 or 9) is clear, state the name of the other vessel you wish to call and then “this is” followed by the name of your vessel and/or call sign). When the other vessel returns your call, immediately request another channel by saying “go to,” the number of the other channel, and “over.” Then switch to the new channel. When the new channel is not busy, call the other vessel. After a transmission, say “over,” and release the microphone’s push-to-talk (PTT) switch. When all communication with the other vessel is completed, end the last transmission by stating your Call Sign and the word “out.” Note that it is not necessary to state your Call Sign with each transmission, only at the beginning and end of the contact. Remember to return to Channel 16 when not using another channel. Some radios automatically monitor Channel 16 even when set to other channels or when scanning.

For example:

Sea Dog, Sea Dog this is Rambler over
This is Sea Dog over
Sea Dog go to 69 over
Roger Rambler, 69 over
Converse on 69, end conversation with Out
This is Rambler back to channel 16

If you know that the other person you wish to contact is monitoring another available channel, ie., 69, contact them there.

Storm Warnings
The Coast Guard announces storm warnings and other urgent marine information broadcasts on channel 16. Storm warnings are also issued on channel 9 in the First Coast Guard District waters (northern New Jersey, New York and New England). Storm warnings and forecasts are also made by NOAA Weather Radio, also available on VHF radios.

Radio Checks
Radio checks with the Coast Guard Communications Stations are allowed.

There is a lot of information here but once you get the hang of it its pretty simple. Listen to channel 16 and/or channel 9 for a while and you will get a good understanding for the standard operating procedures of the VHF radio. Let it be known that I do not proclaim to be an expert about VHF radios. Many reading this will know far more than I ever will about this topic so feel free to let me know if I missed something or just plain got something wrong. My initial reasoning for writing this was to educate myself and I hope that by posting it here it may be helpful to you as well. As always, you should explore other sources of information regarding this topic.

Accidents in this great sport are fortunately few and far between but they can (and will) happen. A VHF radio is a “must have” safety item aboard your kayak. Never consider your safety equipment as your “security blanket” and push your own limitations, common sense must always prevail.

Good Luck and most importantly, Be Safe!

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