a young boy talks on a boat radio
a young boy talks on a boat radio

Marine Communications

In this age of e-mail, fax machines, pagers, and cell phones, there is no shortage of ways to get your message across. But when you're out on the water, what's the best device to maintain your lifeline to shore?

Today's boaters are faced with many choices for ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications. VHFs, cell phones, Family Radio Service radios, CB radios, Single Sidebands, and satellite communications are among the myriad of choices available.

Cell Phones

Having a Cell Phone on board allows you to keep in touch with land-based people and businesses easily. They are very convenient and should be used in tandem with a VHF.

Cell phones, although very convenient on land, are less reliable on the water. Most are not water resistant, and their range is relatively short. The maximum range to and from a cell antenna/station varies, but it is basically line-of-sight.

Range is further complicated by the fact that the majority of cell antenna/stations are placed with land-based use in mind, so the distance offshore that a vessel can remain in contact is frequently short.

Cell phones can also be expensive to operate, although there are many different packages available. Your communication power with a cell phone is limited on the water because the other ship you are trying to contact must also have a cell phone. In some areas, you can place a call to the local Coast Guard station by dialing *CG.

Family Radio Service Radios

two FRS radios

Family Radio Service Radios are intended for personal, non-commercial use like CB radios. They are very handy because they can be used on land for communication without a license.

They are perfect for outdoor trips with friends and family where you need to stay in contact.

And they also help with communications while still on the boat. You can talk to each other from bow to stern, from below to above deck, and more! The range is typically 1-2 miles and is line-of-sight like VHFs and cell phones. They have limited battery power and no emergency channel. They operate in the 460 mHz UHF band between VHF radios and cell phones and transmit at 0.5 watts.

Because these units have become so popular, you may want to pre-arrange what channel you will be using and test it out-very often one or more channels will be overloaded, especially in crowded areas.

Citizen Band (CB) Radios

Citizen Band Radios is intended to afford the general public economical access to two-way radio communication. CB is allocated 40 specific frequencies between 26.965 and 27.405 mHz, commonly referred to as channels 1-40.

Any channel may be used with either single or double sideband amplitude modulation except Channel 9, which is reserved for emergency communications. CB stations are limited to 4-watt carrier waves output power on DSB AM, and 12-watts PEP on SSB AM. The usual reliable range of CB is five miles.

There are several pitfalls to having a CB radio on the water: Making contact may be difficult, since not all boats have CB radios. Channel noise and station traffic are sometimes heavy, and the Coast Guard doesn't monitor the emergency channel.

Single Sidebands

Single Sidebands operate in the medium frequency (MF) and/or high-frequency (HF) bands for reliable direct-voice communications over distances exceeding 25 miles (depending on antenna heights).

SSBs are commonly available with an output power from 50-150 watts. An SSB's range is affected by the strength of the radiated signal, among other things. The maximum reliable range in the 2-3mHz (MF) band during the day is 50-150 miles. Transmission in HF band can reach thousands of miles.

Unlike VHF radios, SSBs require a large ground plane in order to radiate its signal which except on metal hulls, needs to be installed in the form of a large copper mesh panel (sometimes built onto the fiberglass hull). With SSBs, antenna selection and installation is also more complicated. SSBs generally require a much longer antenna than VHFs, and different antenna tuning for different bands.

Satellite Communications

a satelite radio

Satellite Communications such as Iridium is the first example of a worldwide voice communication system which can be accessed using a small hand-held telephone.

The 66 Iridium satellites have the ability to forward voice phone calls from one another and then relay the conversations to ground stations.

Magellan's GSC 100 Personal Satellite Communicator is for those who need worldwide e-mail capabilities. Using 36 ORBCOMM satellites, the constellation allows real-time data communications with low per message costs and low hardware costs.

Our recommendation for reliable on-the-water communications, we recommend using either hand-held or fixed-mount VHF radios. When you're stuck in a jam-whether from engine failure or a fierce storm approaching, a VHF radio can be your lifeline to the world.

In Coast Guard jurisdictions, VHFs are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For extra assurance, the USCG and most TowBoatU.S. and Vessel Assist towers can locate your boat by tracking your VHF signal. VHFs are handy in an emergency, but they have other uses: telephone calls to shore, obtaining supplies and services such as marina reservations, and boat operations like drawbridge openings and communicating with commercial and other recreational vessels.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates marine radio traffic and dictates that all other uses are secondary to safety, so chatting is frowned upon by the FCC and forbidden on Channel 16 and 9.

VHF Radios

Very High Frequency (VHF) Radios Very High Frequency (VHF) radios have been around for many years and remain the primary means of communication for vessels throughout the United States. The main uses of a VHF radio are:

  • Distress calling and safety
  • Ship to shore communications
  • Navigation (vessels to bridges, etc.)
  • Marine operator to place calls to shore
  • NOAA Weather Broadcasts

They come equipped with a choice of transmitter power: one (1) watt for very close communication (approximately one mile or less) or twenty five (25) watts for extended communication (up to approximately twenty five miles). All of this is done usually with the push of a button.

If you need to communicate over a greater distance consider installing a Single Side Band (SSB) radio - which has the capability to transmit over hundreds of miles.

If you are not sure whether you might have the need for Single Side Band radio please feel free to contact your local BOAT/U.S. or West Marine Center where you may discuss the pros and cons.

VHF radios come in many shapes, sizes and colors to meet anyone's needs today. Prices start at about $150.00 for a basic model and can go as high as $1500.00 for the full - featured units. The main factor governing prices of the VHF radios are the features available.

When choosing a VHF radio you should first make a list of the features you feel you want and need.

DSC Capability

Digital Selective Calling, or DSC, is the equivalent of a "mayday button" on a VHF or SSB. When activated, it automatically broadcasts an encoded distress call that will be picked up by all nearby vessels equipped with DSC. If the radio is interfaced with a Loran or GPS, it will also automatically broadcast the distressed vessel's position.

All fixed-mount radios now include it as a feature, so when the USCG Rescue 21 System becomes fully operational, your VHF will be able to take advantage of this latest feature. To use DSC, you must obtain a MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) number.

You may do so free of charge here. Keep in mind that the U.S. Coast Guard is not yet responding to DSC transmissions nationally.


As of October 26, 1996, most recreational boaters are no longer required to obtain an individual Ship Station License from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). However, boaters still need a VHF Ship Station License in the following categories:

  • Those traveling to or broadcasting in a foreign port (including Canada, Bahamas, Caribbean)
  • Those with boats 65 feet or longer
  • Navigation (vessels to bridges, etc.)
  • Those using single sideband radios or Inmarsat equipment
  • Commercial vessels

Those traveling to or broadcasting in a foreign port must also obtain a Restricted Radiotelephone Operator's Permit (RP). However, if you (1) merely plan to sail in domestic or international waters without docking in any foreign ports and without communicating with foreign coast stations, and (2) your radio operates only on VHF frequencies, you do not need an RP.

Forms can be obtained from your nearest FCC field office or from the FCC Wireless Communications Division (se below). Call the Gettysburg office to locate your nearest field office, or call the FCC Form Distribution Center at 800-418-FORM (3676).

For More information on FCC rules and regulations, and to download license applications, click on the button to visit the FCC Marine Radio Fact Sheet.

VHF Radio Channels

Most VHF radios on the market today have in excess of twenty twenty-five usable channels. Aside from the U.S. channels there are also International and Canadian channels, all of which come standard with many of the newer units on the market.

The most important channels on your VHF radio are 13, 16, 19, 22, and 70. Channel 13 is used by commercial shipping to communicate their actions and confirm passage. Channel 16 (156.8 MHz) VHF-FM is designated by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) as the national distress, safety and calling frequency.

All vessels must monitor this channel while underway. Calls to other vessels are normally initiated on Channel 16 except for recreation vessels which may use (voluntarily) Channel 09 VHF-FM. The FCC has designated Channel 09 as a recreational calling channel in order to eliminate congestion on Channel 16 VHF-FM.

However, it is important to take note that the United States Coast Guard does not monitor Channel 09 VHF-FM for distress calls. Any vessel in distress should use Channel 16 VHF-FM (which the Coast Guard does monitor). Channel 22 is the most common working channel for USCG in the event of an emergency.

The following list of channels are those available in the United States for VHF Radio communications. Always remember to check locally for channels authorized for use in your area as well as any local restrictions.

Try to remember that your VHF is not a private telephone. It's more like an old-fashioned party line. Everyone can hear your conversation. Keep the conversation short and to the point as there will be others waiting to use the channel. Also, do not allow children play with the VHF radio.

channel 16 button

Channel 16 - Distress calling and safety, ship-to-ship and ship-to-coast. Users must switch to a "working" channel after making initial contact (except in emergencies). All vessels must monitor Channel 16 when not using the VHF radio for other purposes.

channel 9 button

Channel 09 - Secondary calling channel (a new FCC Rule has designated Channel 9 to be the preferred channel for calling). The purpose of this change is to free Channel 16 for distress calls.

channel 6 button

Channel 06 - Ship-to-ship safety messages, and communication with search and rescue and Coast Guard vessels and aircraft.

channel 13 button

Channel 13 and Channel 67 - These are navigational channels. Channel 13 (all vessels) is for one watt of transmission power only. Channel 67 (Commercial Only) is for one-watt transmission power only. These radio channels are also known as the "bridge-to-bridge" channels. These channels are used for listening to ship movements in tight waterways, locks, etc.

channel 22 button

Channel 22 - Used to speak with Coast Guard after initial contact on Channel 16.

channel 68 button

Channel 68, Channel 69, Channel 71 and Channel 72 - Used solely for communications between vessels.

channel 1 button

Channel 01, Channels 07 through 11, Channel 18, Channel 19, Channel 63, Channel 67, Channel 79 and Channel 80 - Commercial working channels and are reserved for commercial vessels only. Also note that Channel 63 has no listen.

channel 24 button

Channels 24 through 28 and Channels 84 through 88 - Are reserved for Marine Operator communications for the purpose of sending or receiving ship-to-shore phone calls.

channel 70 button

Channel 70 - Digital Selective Calling. Those few vessels with DSC radios should use this channel for distress and calling channel instead of 16.

channel W1 button

Channel W1 through Channel W10 - These channels are reserved for weather transmissions. For the most part only Channels W1 through W4 are receiving weather broadcasts from NOAA. These are receive-only channels.

ALL OTHERS - Virtually every radio manufactured today has every available channel. If your radio has channels that you do not see on this list do not use them. These extra channels are reserved for government, commercial, or vessel use only.

VHF Radio Antennas


After you decide which VHF radio is best for you, your next step is to pick out an antenna. The VHF antenna is a very important part of your VHF Radio System. VHF antennae come in many lengths and types so, before buying a VHF antenna contact an expert and determine which style best fits your needs. If you buy the wrong antenna you will not get the performance your VHF radio is capable of producing. VHF and DSC equipment are made up of three distinct parts - each part is equally important. These pieces are:

  • The Transceiver
  • The Coaxial Cable with its connectors carrying the signal to or from the antenna
  • The antenna itself. Even today the cables, connectors and antennae often do not get the attention they demand

Yet, their individual functionality has a notable effect on the performance of the system as a whole. The wrong antenna or a damaged or poor quality coax cable can drain the transmission power therein wasting the money spent for a good installation. At every frequency, besides being free from obstacles, the antenna has to meet precise electrical and electronic requirements.

When choosing an antenna it is advisable to discuss with your dealer all the problems connected with the installation, use of the equipment and the type of transceiver needed.

This will allow you further understand and tackle many problems before they arise. In case this sort of advice is not available to you, the information provided below should be helpful in the selection of the proper antenna.


The "gain" is singularly the most important specification of the antenna. It is indicated in dB (Decibels) which briefly means this: the higher dB numbers, the greater the range. On the other hand, a high gain will decrease the antenna radiation patterns.

This means that low gain antennae are less influenced by the rolling and pitching of a boat. With increased gain, the pitching movement of the boat may cause a temporary signal reduction.

These are the reasons why on the faster planing boats it is recommended that a high gain antenna be used. Conversely, on sailboats, with a masthead installation and with the mast subject to swaying, it is recommended that the 3 dB gain antenna be used.


In general, the higher the antenna, the better the range of your radio. VHFs transmit via "line-of-site" radio waves--therefore the higher the antenna, the farther your signal will reach over the horizon.

You may be able to talk to the local Coast Guard station that may be over twenty miles away (because they have a very tall radio tower) but not your friend who is only a few miles away as their antenna is only a few feet above the water. Having an antenna with the right gain, and located as high as practicable, will give you the optimal operating conditions for using your VHF radio.

VHF Radio Communications

How to Use your VHF Radio

a vhf radio

To use your VHF, turn it on and pick a channel, set the squelch to the point where you don't hear any white noise, and begin talking. Things to remember when you are on the radio:

  • To use your VHF, turn it on and pick a channel, set the squelch to the point where you don't hear any white noise, and begin talking. Things to remember when you are on the radio.
  • Don't tie up channel 16 or channel 9. If you are talking with someone, switch to a working channel so you are not keeping others from using channel 16 or 9. In some instances, the Coast Guard may even order you to switch channels if you are abusing these channels.
  • A VHF radio is not a telephone. When you use your VHF, everyone tuned to that station in the area can hear you! Watch your language, and try to keep your conversations short and to the point so that others may use the channel.

Using a VHF radio is one of the easier things to do on a boat, but their are things you need to do to operate a VHF properly. Most VHF radios have some or all of the following:

  • Volume Knob - Adjusts volume
  • "Squelch" Knob" - Adjusting the squelch is similar to tuning your radio--it will make the signal sound much more clear
  • Channel Knob or Up/Down Buttons - This lets you change the channel you are using
  • Channel Display Screen - This tells you what channel you are on, and also any other feature that you may be using
  • Weather Button - This is a direct way to get to your local weather channels
  • Scan Button - This will automatically change your radio channel to one that is currently being used by other boaters. You may also be able to "Priority scan" which will allow you to program specific channels that you frequently use.
  • 16/9 Button - Automatically takes you to either channel 16 or 9
  • 1/25 or Hi/Lo Button - This allows you to raise or lower the power with which you broadcast your signal. For boats close to you, use low power. For boats farther away, use high
  • INT/USA - Allows you to change channel type if you leave the United States for other countries such as Canada
  • Transmit Button - This is usually on the mike. Simply push it down, and your radio will transmit a signal

VHF Emergency Procedures

How to Use your VHF Radio in an Emergency

In emergency situations, there are certain procedures to follow to ensure prompt response to your need for help. There are three phrases that you might hear on a VHF radio, and they all relate to safety.

MAYDAY - is the distress signal, and requires the most urgent response. This signal is only to be used when a person, or boat is threatened by grave or imminent danger, and requires assistance.

PAN-PAN - this signal is used to signal urgent information, such as when someone has fallen overboard, or a boat is drifting into the shore or a busy shipping channel.

SECURITE - Is the safety signal. This is used to transmit information about the safety of navigation. For instance, if a large commercial vessel is coming through a narrow channel, this signal would be used. Can also be used to transmit weather information, such as when a powerful storm system is approaching.

There is a "procedure" for sending out a distress call, but all you really need to know is to turn your VHF to Channel 16 and high power, key the mike, and say one of the three phrases three times, along with position and situation information.

Here's a hypothetical mayday from the fishing boat Tambourine:

"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is the Tambourine. Our position is 24:33' north and 74:56' west and we are sinking."

Try to speak slowly and clearly, and repeat this information three times. The essential information is Mayday, your position, and your emergency. If you have time, describe your boat and how many are aboard:

"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is the Tambourine. Our position is 24:33' north and 74:56' west and we are sinking."

Mention if Someone is Injured

If you don't get an immediate response keep periodically sending out a Mayday broadcast as long as the radio will function, taking care to give your position with every transmission. If time permits, scan through the other channels and interrupt any radio traffic you hear with your Mayday broadcast. If you don't hear traffic, try transmitting on Coast Guard Channel 22A.

If your emergency isn't immediately life threatening, say Pan-Pan instead of Mayday. This is the urgency call-Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan (pronounced pahn). Make it just like a distress call, except state exactly what assistance you want. For example, maybe you have a controllable leak, and you just want help standing by in case it gets worse.