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VHF Radio - Why, What, When & How

Most boats will come supplied with a VHF Marine Radio allowing for communications between you and other vessels (ship to ship) and also shore stations such as marinas, coastwatch stations and the coast guard (ship to shore). In this blog we look at some key points regarding the use of a VHF and the importance of having the appropriate training.

Why use VHF?

A fixed and Handheld VHF Training Radio

A great reason that a VHF radio is a worthwhile addition to your vessel is that they are designed to be used on the water. A mobile phone is great for communication and may well be a usable option in most cases, however you may find yourself out of range for signal or with a flat battery. Your VHF is built to stand up to a wet, salty environment and can be easily operated with wet or cold hands.

All new VHF radios also now have Digital Selective Calling (DSC) as standard and this allows information to be sent quickly and easily to the coastguard in an emergency situation. Many models now also have inbuilt GPS or the capability to link to your vessels chart plotter, this means that the exact position of your boat is also sent as part of a distress alert.

What licenses are required?

1. Ofcom Ships' Radio License

This sounds like an expensive and arduous thing to acquire. It's actually really simple and can be completed online free of charge. You will need the details of your vessel and if it is a second hand vessel that previously had a license you will need to know the MMSI number that was issued to it (more on these later). You then select the equipment on board to be covered by license this includes the vessels fixed VHF radio, any handheld VHF Radios plus other equipment on board that can transmit a signal.

Licenses Required

2. Authority to Operate

This is your license to operate the radio, and can be achieved by attending the RYA SRC (Short Range Certificate) Course commonly known as the 'VHF Course'. Harbour Sea School are accredited to run the course in our waterfront classroom at the marina. For current course availability please email The course lasts 1 day and costs £99. At the end of the day there is an exam and this costs £70 payable direct to the RYA. You will also need to provide a passport photograph for your certificate.

Visit our VHF Course page for more details.

Training Centre Logo

RYA Logo

When should I use my VHF Radio?

VHF is great for keeping a 'listening watch' to the Harbour Channel (14 in Poole) to know about the movements of large vessels or other works taking place that may require you to keep clear or watch your wash.

VHF is also a great way to communicate with marinas to effectively arrange a berth in a marina and ask questions to make the berthing process less stressful!

What are you allowed to discuss?

VHF Radios are designed for making quick and concise communications regarding yours or another vessel, for safety, navigation or in an emergency situation. If you want to have a chat with your mate about tonight's dinner reservation or the latest football score this is best done via another means.

Who can you call?

  • Any other vessel fitted with a VHF Radio or carrying a handheld set, that is in range to receive your communication.

  • A shore station such as a Marina, National Coast Watch or Port Control

  • The Coastguard (VHF Ch 16)

If you heard the words ‘Seelonce Mayday’ broadcast over the radio would you understand what that meant? It is important for safety that you do and we cover all of these topics on the course.

How do I use my VHF Radio

Key parts of using a VHF radio are brevity, clarity and discipline. It is important to understand how to use the radio properly and follow the structures. This enables more people to use the radio and may prevent you from blocking an emergency call. On our VHF course we will cover prohibited actions, prowords, range, low power and high power, channel use and the phonetic alphabet.

In Conclusion

Mayday Card

The main thing to remember is that your VHF is there for use in an emergency situation to summon assistance. It is vital that you and your other crew members know how to issue a DISTRESS Alert and MAYDAY should the worst happen. A cue card next to the helm pre-filled with your vessels details is the best way to ensure that all the relevant information is relayed.

Understanding your radio and being licensed makes your boating safer and more enjoyable.The course should not be seen as a trial, it’s something to engage with and to apply to your boating. It is important we follow the protocols to protect everyone but don’t be afraid to use the radio if needed for both routine or emergency calls.

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