VHF Radio for Boats – Top Tips

This article contains tips and information on using the VHF radio for boats. It is a quick-fire list of golden nuggets from my guide, VHF Radio for Boats Checklists & Templates. Some you might know, and others might be new. After 10+ years of experience using the VHF in various parts of the world, we’ve picked up quite a few tips to get you proficient quickly.

When buying a VHF radio for your boat, several important factors must be considered to ensure you get the right one for your needs. Let’s start with some top tips on buying a VHF radio, and then we’ll move into tips on how to use the radio.

Top Tips on Choosing a VHF Radio for Boats

  • Check Legal Requirements: Before purchasing a VHF radio, understand the legal requirements for marine radio usage in your region. In most countries, you must obtain the necessary licenses and operate within designated frequency bands. Noted that the US does not require a license.
  • Choose a Fixed or Handheld Unit: VHF radios come in two main types: fixed-mount and handheld. Fixed units are more powerful and have larger antennas, while handheld units are portable. Consider your specific needs and the space available on your boat. We had a mixture of both on our boat.
  • DSC Capability: Digital Selective Calling (DSC) is an essential feature that allows you to send a distress signal in emergencies and communicate with other DSC-equipped vessels. Make sure the radio you choose has DSC capability.
  • Waterproof and Durability: Look for waterproof or at least water-resistant radios. Marine environments can be harsh, so a durable and rugged radio is essential.
  • Channel Capability: VHF radios operate on specific channels, including emergency channels (16 and 9). Ensure your radio can access all necessary channels, and some models may have extra channels for weather alerts and other services.
  • Power Output: The power output of a VHF radio is measured in watts. Higher-wattage radios can transmit over longer distances, which can be important in emergencies or communication in open waters.
  • Antenna Compatibility: Make sure the radio is compatible with the antenna you plan to use. The quality and height of your antenna can limit the effectiveness of your radio.

More Top Tips on Choosing a VHF Radio for Boats

  • Display and Controls: Look for a radio with an easy-to-read display and user-friendly controls. The buttons and menus should be intuitive for easy operation, even in rough conditions.
  • NMEA Integration: If you have other marine electronics on your boat, such as GPS or chart plotters, consider a VHF radio to integrate with the NMEA (National Marine Electronics Association) network for enhanced functionality.
  • AIS Capability: Some VHF radios come with Automatic Identification System (AIS) integration, which allows you to track the positions of nearby vessels and receive important information about them.
  • Battery Life: Consider the battery life if you opt for a handheld VHF radio. Longer battery life is crucial for extended trips or emergencies.
  • Brand Reputation: Stick to reputable brands known for their quality, reliability, and customer support. Look for reviews and user feedback to gauge the reputation of a specific model.
  • Price and Features: Consider your budget and what features are most important for your needs. You can find VHF radios with a wide range of features, so balance what you need with what you’re willing to spend.
  • Training: Familiarize yourself with radio operating and understand the procedures for distress calls and general communication. Training courses are often available and highly recommended. Read my article: VHF Radio Course – Is It Worth Taking?
  • Register Your Radio: In many regions, it’s required to register your VHF radio with the appropriate authorities. Ensure you do this to stay in compliance with local regulations.

VHF Radio for Boats General Tips and Information

  • Channel 16 is the channel you should always keep your radio tuned to. It’s used for initially calling another boat or place, emergencies, messages from the Coastguard, and safety warnings.
  • Always look at the radio channel before using it. Someone could have changed the channel to hear a weather forecast or speak with someone and failed to turn it back to Channel 16.
  • When you speak over the VHF radio, allow your voice to project forward and across the microphone rather than speaking directly into the speaking area – your voice will transmit more clearly this way.
  • Speak as slowly as you possibly can during a distress or urgency broadcast. The slower you speak, the more accessible it is for people to write down your message.
  • Understand that VHF radios use one-way communication. Whoever has the button pressed is the only person transmitting. Once you’re done speaking, take your finger off the button.
  • If you accidentally lay your VHF in a position that presses the button, you will inadvertently transmit everything you say. Furthermore, while your button is pressed, no one can transmit on the channel you’re on. I write this warning because new cruisers do this often!
  • Be conscious of the fact that many maritime workers (fishers, tankers, etc.) use a variety of channels. Make your messages quick and concise, so you’re not hogging the radio space.

VHF Radio for Boats General Tips and Information

  • Don’t ever say ‘over and out’! That means ‘over to you, and I’m hanging up.’ You can’t do both at the same time. Also, anyone listening to your communication will think you don’t have a clue!
  • When you send out an automatic MAYDAY (pushing a MOB button or pressing the DSC distress button on the radio), please do your best to follow it up with a verbal message. By law, boats that receive the MAYDAY alert must assist; however, if you can verbally convey your situation with a follow-up broadcast, you might get a quicker response. A verbal response will also notify boats in the area that the message was not sent accidentally.
  • If a boat buddy or marina does not answer your VHF broadcast, the rules state that you must wait at least two minutes before broadcasting again. Usually, if you don’t hear back from the person you’re calling after two attempts, your best bet is to try again later. If you broadcast too many requests without a response, other boaters will become annoyed and tell you to stop.
  • When reading out numerals, the protocol is to speak them digit by digit. For example, when talking about latitude and longitude, you’d say, “Five zero degrees one two decimal four minutes north, zero zero one degree two eight decimal six minutes west.” And when reading time, 12:30 would be, “one two three zero.”
  • When listing any letters, use the phonetic alphabet (A, for Alfa, is pronounced ‘Al Fah’). For example, our call sign is Mike (M), Charlie (C), Delta (D), and Juliet (J) eight. Speaking over a VHF radio is often difficult to hear, so the phonetic alphabet reduces the chance of mishearing a letter. I’ve provided a phonetic alphabet and number table in my guide, VHF Radio for Boats Checklists & Templates.

VHF Radio for Boats General Tips and Information

  • Use phonetic numeral pronunciation when saying numbers. For example, one is pronounced “Wun,” and two is pronounced “Too,” and so on. I provide a table in my guide, VHF Radio for Boats Checklists & Templates. Phonetic pronunciations were set up to avoid mistaking one number or letter for another.
  • Confession time: Phonetic numbers and letters have always confused me, so I always use standard numbers/letters. I wasn’t in the military, and it doesn’t come naturally. If you have an emergency and don’t have time to look up the phonetic numbers or letters, it’s better to do what you know best. The most important thing is to speak clearly and slowly.
  • Time is noted in UTC or Universal Time Coordinated – it’s the same time as GMT or Greenwich Mean Time without adjustments for British Summer Time. During the summer, BST is one hour ahead of UTC. Talk about confusing! If you don’t have an instrument that tells you UTC, say the time and express it’s “local time.”
  • Most boats now have a DSC (Digital Selective Calling) system. That means you can send an automatic digital message and alert to every vessel in your area by pressing a button and following a few prompts. The alert will cause an alarm to ring out over the VHF radio on board every ship. This alarm then enables boats in your area to listen and take note of a MAYDAY, Pan-Pan, or Securité broadcast. On handheld radios, there is often an ‘All Ship’ button. On other radios, you might have to scroll through a menu. There is more about the DSC system, my guide, VHF Radio for Boats Checklists & Templates.
Reader Feedback
“My wife and I have sailed for decades, and I'm always on the hunt for ways to improve our experience and safety onboard. This guide is a great tool to have onboard, not just for us but for any guests that we have with us, and it could save people's lives.

Kim also offers a customized template for our own boat that we will laminate and keep in the nav station area for potential emergencies.” Doug Neil

Click on the guide to get more information and buy!
  • If by chance you can’t figure out the DSC system, don’t let it bog you down. Find the appropriate template you need to use (MAYDAY, Pan-Pan, etc.), fill it out, and get on channel 16 to make the necessary broadcast.
  • English is the recognized international language in the maritime world, but that doesn’t mean that every marina or boat you pass will be able to speak English. I’ve experienced mooring in several marinas in the Mediterranean, and no one speaks English, so don’t make assumptions.
  • Don’t be surprised if you’re sailing around and hearing music broadcast on Channel 16 for hours. For some reason, some unprofessional boaters think it’s funny. We were graced with Russian music during a night sail for four hours along Spain’s east coast.
  • I recommend getting a hand-held VHF. We have three. They allow for use in the cockpit if you don’t have a cockpit radio, and it can also come with you if you have to leave the boat (abandon ship). We used radios often when one of us went to shore and needed a lift home or when we separated on land and had to find each other.

Your Free MAYDAY Template Awaits – VHF Radio for Boats

To make sailing adventures even safer, we offer a free MAYDAY template you can download. It’s a handy tool to have on board, ensuring you’re always prepared for the unexpected. Just click the link below to grab your copy and sail with confidence!

Download Your Free MAYDAY Template

Mastering the art of VHF Radio Marine is like having a secret code to stay connected and safe on the open water. So, don’t wait – get that VHF Radio Marine up and running, practice your MAYDAY calls, and sail confidently. Fair winds and following seas, fellow cruisers!

Request FREE MAYDAY Template Here

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Important Information!

As a first-time sailboat owner, I found the book extremely informative. With proper instruction of VHF procedures, I can now feel confident that I can communicate properly in times of need. The templates are helpful and will be installed onboard.

Robert Bell


Kim Brown:
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