In this day and age of ubiquitous smartphones and increasingly powerful apps, it may seem a little strange to see a VHF radio in the console of your luxury yacht or other type of boat.

However, when it comes to communications at sea, that marine radio is a crucial “lifeline” that no cell phone can match. But, what cell phones have done, is make the days of the popularity of CB radios and shortwaves, a thing of the distant past. Which means, that while still very necessary for marine communications, most boat owners today, are probably very unfamiliar with radio protocols.

Here are a few of the basics you need to know.

Marine Radio Use for Boat Owners and Operators

VHF marine-band radios have been the standard for marine communications for decades, and they remain the primary means of ship-to-shore, and ship-to-ship communication for boats the world-over. While there are some variations of features from set-to-set, all work basically the same way.

To use your radio: Make sure it is turned on. Select a channel, set the “squelch” to the point where you don’t hear any “white noise,” and you can then use the hand-set to begin talking.

using a marine radio

Most radios have over 25 US and international channels, most of which you will not use. The most important channel and the one you should “default” to is always Ch.16. Channel 16 is designated as the national distress, safety, and calling frequency. So, it is important whenever not engaged in active conversation, to have your radio set to Ch. 16. This is not only for your own safety, but as a responsible boat owner, you should monitor the channel for other boats in your proximity that might get in trouble. This is why it is also important not to tie up Ch. 16 with idle chatter.

The other important marine radio channel is Ch. 9. Ch. 9 is used to hail other boats in your area. Like Ch. 16, boaters are encouraged not to tie up Ch. 9 with talk, but to use it to make first contact with another vessel, and then switch to another channel usually 68, 69, 71 or 72 for two-way conversation. Always remember to check for channels that are authorized for use in your area, as well as any local restrictions.

Additional Marine Radio Use Tips

Your marine radio is not a telephone; it really should not be used for idle conversation, but reserved for emergencies, or the need to give or receive important information to or from other boaters. Conversations should be kept short, and direct, so as not to tie up bandwidth. Also, keep in mind that anyone on a channel you are using, can hear your conversation, even children – so watch your language!

The most important use of your VHF marine radio is to make a distress call if you are in trouble. There are three phrases, or “call signs,” you must know to properly signal an emergency. “Mayday,” “Pan-pan,” and “Securite.”

  • Mayday is used when you are in the most serious, or life threatening emergency.
  • Pan-pan is used when you are in trouble, but not immediate danger like you are adrift because you ran out of fuel, or you have a leak, but it is under control.
  • Securite (pronounced “secure-i-TAY”) is to give warning of a threat to navigation or an impending storm.


It is a serious offence to make a false alert or mayday call. The US Coast Guard makes over 200 responses to hoaxes or false distress calls every year. This hurts everyone by costing the taxpayers money, but more importantly, diverting the attention of valuable resources from a real emergency. Placing a false distress call to the USCG can result in fines up to $250,000 and/or 6 years in prison!

Coast Guard Call

Other Marine Communications Devices

With all of their advantages, understand that even VHF marine radios have their limitations. If you want to be sure you are never out of range of help in an emergency situation, in addition to a VHF radio, it is highly recommended that you also have an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, or EPIRB, on board. This is a specialized emergency radio beacon that uses satellite technology to connect to a worldwide distress system. An EPIRB, or a similar device known as a Personal Locater Beacon (PLB), is designed to quickly and reliably alert rescue personnel and accurately guide them to your position when all other communications fail.

EPRIB in action

How an EPIRB Works

Before You Consider New or Upgraded Communications Gear

Before considering the purchase of new, or upgrading to more sophisticated communications equipment, it is important to have all of the wiring, connections, and other components of your electrical system inspected. These may also need to be upgraded to be compatible with any new marine electronics.

Did you know that routine inspection and maintenance of your electrical system, communications and safety gear, is all part of our On Demand yachting solution?

That is only one advantage of being part of On Demand yachting. Members are aware of when any upgrades to any system from hydraulics to your engines, may be necessary, and you can be sure your yacht is always maintained for peak performance and the personal safety of you and your guests.

marine radio Call


Operating a motor yacht can be costly. You can reduce your expenses, and avoid costly repairs by keeping her well maintained. On Demand yachting from FYM can help. If you would like to learn more, or if you have any questions or comments about this blog post, do not hesitate to contact our Yacht Management specialists, or call us at (954) 900-9968.