Handheld VHF Radios: Social media and S.O.S. in one

We are all well aware of how convenient cell phones can be and, for some people who simply enjoy chatting with their friends when they are out and about, they can be a source of entertainment as well. However, the problem with cell phones is that cell phone companies don’t find it profitable to build cell phone towers in remote locations and thus, cell phones have no reception in most remote locations. Consequently, the only means that landlocked travelers have of conversing with one another from remote locations is to use either satellite phones or walkie-talkie radios and, while satellite phones are certainly convenient, they are also bulky and expensive while, walkie-talkies have a somewhat limited range. But, marine travelers and explorers on the other hand have access to Very High Frequency (VHF) radio which is a civilian bandwidth of radio frequencies that enables people to converse with each other over open channels and this, it is somewhat akin to using your cell phone to access social media on the Web. Plus, if you ever do find yourself in an emergency situation, then rather than having to activate your Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) and then wait for rescue personnel to be dispatched to your location, you can instead use your handheld VHF radio to issue a distress call along with your position to any and all water and air craft in your vicinity and thus, you may very well be able to receive help much faster that way than by activating your PLB. Thus, while a Personal Locator Beacon is certainly a must have item for anyone who enjoys the outdoors, a handheld VHF radio is a must have companion to a PLB for sea kayakers, boaters and, recreational fishermen alike!

However, it should be noted that although VHF radio is very similar to social media for mariners, it’s not exactly like it. In fact, rather than thinking Facebook, you should instead think Linked In. You see, the marine world is a very dynamic place with all kinds of craft coming and going at all hours of the day and night and, because we cannot paint nice, convenient, lines on our waterways like we do on our roads, we instead have to settle for navigational aids, lights and, buoys to help direct traffic. Thus, the VHF radio serves as the main means by which captains communicate with each other concerning information pertinent to their craft and thus, because the air ways are often busy with important communications, it is bad etiquette to clutter up the various channels with useless personal conversations. However, it should be noted that the VHF bandwidth is not restricted to commercial craft but is also available to recreational and personal watercraft as well and thus, you can use it to communicate with your friends while on the water; you simply need to keep your communications to a minimum and confined to pertinent information such as your present position, your destination, current weather conditions, fishing conditions, etcetera. Furthermore, you should also be aware that because a VHF radio broadcasts on an open channel, every water and air craft in your vicinity that has their radio on and is monitoring that channel can hear whatever you say and thus, you should refrain from broadcasting personal information.

However, precisely because there are often so many people communicating via VHF radio, the VHF bandwidth is divided into numerous different channels so that in case one channel is cluttered, then both you and the person you are communicating with can switch to a different channel. Thus, the first channel that you should be aware of is channel 16 because it is the most important. In fact, channel 16 is devoted entirely to international distress, safety and, ship-to-ship communications and thus, it’s used when you need to hail (call) another vessel or broadcast an emergency or safety situation. Therefore, after contacting a vessel, except in an emergency, you must move off of channel 16 to leave it open for other users. But, channel 9 on the other hand, can also be used to hail other craft but, it is not an emergency channel. Thus, the way that VHF works is that if you have an emergency situation or an urgent ship-to-ship communication, then you broadcast it on channel 16 but, if your communication is of a more personal nature, then you broadcast it on channel 9. Then, once the person that you are attempting to reach answers your call, then you both switch to another channel of your choosing. But, it is also important to note that like channels 16 and 9, other U.S. VHF channels also have designated purposes and thus, they should only be used for those purposes and thus, it is good to know that channels 68, 69 and 78A (plus 79A and 80A in the Great Lakes) are all designated for non-commercial use and thus, you can use these channels to carry on a conversation with another person after you establish contact with them on channel 9. Last, it is important to note that the proper etiquette when hailing another vessel is for that vessel to tell you which channel to switch to but, when you are the one being hailed, then you should be the one to suggest which channel to switch to.

But, as we are all well aware of, Murphy’s Law is ever present and all pervading and thus, you simply cannot predict when something might go wrong! Thus, many of you may recall that in a previous article, I wrote about the importance of purchasing and, the value of carrying, a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) and how, by carrying this simple electronic device that is not much bigger than a smart phone and, by simply depressing two buttons at the same time, you can send an S.O.S. signal out to local rescue personnel via a global SARSAT satellite system from nearly any place on the face of the Earth. However, doing so tends to imply that that your emergency is rather dire and thus, that it is a matter of life and death. But, because this is not always the case in an emergency, VHF radios also serve as means of contacting other boaters in your vicinity who may be able to provide you with immediate assistance in situations where you really do need help but, your situation is not immediately life threatening. Therefore, depending on the level of your emergency, you have the option of sending out a general call for assistance on channel 9 or, if you situation is a genuine emergency, then you can broadcast a general mayday to all water and air craft in your vicinity by using channel 16 which is monitored by the U.S. Coast Guard for this very type of call.

Last but not least, VHF radios also have the really useful function of being able to receive National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio broadcasts! In fact, these broadcasts of local and nearshore coastal marine weather forecasts are provided to the NOAA by the National Weather Service (NWS) via their network along with predicted tides and real time observations from buoys and coastal meteorological stations operated by NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center (NDBC) and, the forecasts are repeated in a continuous loop so that they are always available to listeners. Consequently, the entire U.S. is divided into a total of 15 different regions and all of them have separate channels and individualized weather forecasts. Therefore, in order to receive the NWR Weather Radio channel that is germane to your particular locale, then you absolutely must set your weather radio to the correct channel for your area.

So, as you can see, while having a Personal Locator Beacon along with you on any and all outdoor adventures is a very wise idea since it can literally save your life in a wilderness emergency situation, paring your PLB with a handheld VHF radio when boating or paddling is an even better idea! In fact, having a VHF radio along with you in addition to a PLB not only enables you to contact and converse with friends who might be on the water that day via channels 68, 69 and, 78A, it also enables you to broadcast an area wide distress call via channel 16 for immediate assistance from any craft in your vicinity so that you may not be forced to activate your PLB in the event of a minor rather than a major emergency. Thus, for both boaters and paddlers, having a handheld VHF radio along is like having the ability to access social media on the Web and chat with friends via a cell phone while you are out on the water while also being able to dial 911 in the event of an emergency!

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