VHF Communication

General Advice
  • A VHF radio is one of the most critical safety systems on a cruising vessel so do not depart on a cruise without a well-operating VHF radio setup.
  • All members of a vessel's crew must know how to operate the VHF radio as well as good communication protocol / etiquette.
  • Every vessel should have a ship's station with a higher-gain antenna and one or more handheld VHF radios.
  • VHF radio failure is very common. It is a good idea to carry an inexpensive backup ships station VHF radio - it doesn't need to have all the bells and whistles of your main radio - just be able to be swapped for it (use high-gain antenna) in case of a failure.
  • An emergency antenna (available in an inexpensive package of suction-cup mounted short antenna and cable) and / or a back up for the ship's main antenna should be carried by every vessel.
  • In the Bahamas, never travel in your dinghy without a handheld VHF for emergencies.
  • Be aware that most modern VHF radios are all digital and can be programmed to use US, Canadian, or International sets of frequencies. Note: they are different in important ways and thus radios on different frequency sets will not be able to communicate well or at all with each other.
    • Learn how to check and reprogram your radio's frequency set.
    • The Bahamas uses the US frequency set.
  • Remember: when talking on VHF you are broadcasting to the local world so be careful and reticent about what kind of personal or security-related information you broadcast on VHF.

General Usage
  • While cruising in the Bahamas, you will use your VHF to an extent you never experienced at home. So knowledge of how to operate the radio and good protocol / etiquette is a must for every crew member.
  • Be aware of your radio's mike and how it works.
    • Many push-to-talk buttons don't operate smoothly - so learn to push it hard and look for a e.g, TX, etc display.
    • Most mikes today have one or more tiny holes in their face for the microphone. It is really easy to put part of your hand over the hole(s) - so be aware how you hold the mike.
  • Talk in a moderately loud conversational voice, hold the mike within 6" of your mouth, and direct your voice into the tiny hole(s) in the mike.
  • Women should try to use their lower voice register because higher voice frequencies do not transmit as well.
  • When you use a mike in a wind stream, you will very likely broadcast more wind noise than voice - so use it in shelter.

VHF Range
  • VHF radio waves travel essentially line-of-sight so communication between stations depends principally on the inter-visibility of the antennas. The higher the antenna, the greater its range.
  • VHF power affects range. Be aware of the power setting of your radio. You can set your radio for different power levels from 25 W max (US) to 1 W.
  • Antennas provide different gain (amplification) so your larger ship's antenna provides more gain than your handheld VHF radio's "rubber duck" antenna.
  • Some VHF channels, e.g. VHF Ch-17, are low-power and thus short range channels.
  • Be aware of the relative range to the station you are trying to communicate with. If you can't easily see them, you will likely need to use a higher power working station.

Interference with Other VHF Stations
  • Just because you can't hear a station that is out of range of your radio does not mean that you are not interfering with the communication of that station with a station located between your vessel and the far vessel.
  • Sometimes, if yours is the "between" vessel, it can appear that another station is being uncouth and stepping on your transmission with a "far" vessel but the interfering vessel may be unaware of that transmission. Use forbearance.
  • You may think a frequency totally unused but it may not really be so because of the above effect.
  • This effect requires transmissions to be brief and succinct to minimize interference on busy frequencies such as hailing / emergency channels,VHF Ch-16, VHF Ch-9, or net-base stations such as VHF CH-68 (where they are in operation).

Standard VHF Communication Protocol / Etiquette
  • Marine VHF is no place to play cute, cool, or Rambo-at-the-mike; make your transmissions business-like, brief, and to the point on hailing / emergency frequencies (VHF Ch-16, Ch-09, and Ch-68 in the Abacos and George Town areas).
  • Clearly enunciate when speaking - remember radio transmission noise will only make you less intelligible.
  • Don't use unnecessary words: "come back", "ya wanna go to station" etc. on hailing channels.
  • Basic hailing protocol: Clearly say the name of the station you are calling at least 2 times, then your station name. (Three times each is usually recommended but in busy areas the 2 , 1 approach is usually sufficient.)
  • Have the station you want to use as a working station in mind ahead of time so you don't waste time trying to think one up.
    • Be aware of the range to the station you are calling so you can choose the proper working channel with either high or low power.
    • Use lower power channels whenever possible. This ads some privacy and frees up communication "space" for others.
  • Always acknowledge that you will respond to the request to switch to a working channel by repeating the channel number. This efficiently signals the other station that you heard then, understand, and will comply. It also allows the other station to correct you if you have miss-apprehended the working channel.
  • When responding to a call from someone you regularly communicate with, save time by responding with just your station name and the working channel you want to use.
  • Be prepared to suggest / use both low power, short range working stations (e.g. VHF Ch-17) as well as higher power, longer range channels (18, 68, 72, etc.).
  • There are many essentially unused VHF channels in the Bahamas so there are lots of channels that can be used as working channels and alternates.
  • If you are with one or more boats, set up a working channel and a backup. Once you have established your working channel you can acknowledge a hail from a member of your group just by saying "Working". This saves time and adds some privacy.

Bahamian VHF Protocol / Etiquette.
  • You are visitors in the Bahamas - so respect that the way they do things here is different than your practices at home.
  • Bahamians use VHF as a principal communication link for all types of purposes such as hailing businesses and taxis - not just hailing and emergency use between vessels.
  • This may not seem right to you but you are a visitor in their country - so don't play VHF Nazi.
  • This is all the more reason for you to use good VHF protocol and etiquette to keep traffic on VHF Ch-16 minimal.

Updated: 23 Dec 10