Skipper’s Tips #11 – VHF & DSC

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As an SRC (Short Range Certificate) assessor, this tip has particular significance for me.

I often hear people using VHF radio when I’m out on the water and in my experience it’s possible to post these radio users into three quite distinct categories.

  • Category one – all the people who clearly know what they are doing and operate their radio set in the manner for which it was intended
  • Category two – these guys put a smile on my face.  They are obviously new to VHF radio and not that relaxed with talking to a microphone. However, they are sticking rigidly to procedure and importantly, they are doing everything properly – big pat on the back for you
  • Category three – you are the people who who have decided that you are somehow above the rest of us, you don’t need to take any training or a test and you really don’t know how to use your VHF radio correctly. You are breaking the law and potentially putting lives at risk.  The SRC course takes less than one day and costs very little money in the big scheme of things, go and do it!

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Anyone who uses a boat will surely be familiar with VHF radio, even if they haven’t actually had occasion to use it themselves. Unfortunately, all too often, people seem to be unaware of the obligations that come with utilising this equipment in the public forum. It’s not hard to imagine that there will be rules and obligations that go with using any equipment that transmits a signal and allows you to interact with other people.  Therefore, as this system is designed primarily for safety, it makes sense that it’s use should be governed.

So here are some of the rules for you to consider:

  • The equipment must be licensed and comply with approved manufacturers standards (CE marked)
  • The user must have an operator’s licence or be in the company of a licence holder
  • The use of the VHF/DSC equipment is limited to emergency, safety or navigational purposes only
  • Correct procedures should be followed at all time

There are only 59 channels available to maritime VHF radio users and literally hundreds of thousands of users, so it makes sense that there should be a structure to the way radios are operated. The system of procedural words and the use of the phonetic alphabet both contribute to efficient communication, which frankly, can be a little bit ‘hit and miss’ sometimes. The VHF signal can often be weak and broken, so having a structure to what we say makes it easier to fill in the gaps.

Before going out to sea, many people like to test their VHF to see that it is still operational.  This is most commendable, especially if you have not used your boat for a while or you have recently been working on the boat. However, it is more appropriate to call another vessel or the harbourmaster to make a radio check, than it is to call the coastguard.  Especially on a busy Bank Holiday, when the coastguard will not appreciate hundreds of people calling on channel 16 (Safety and calling channel) for a radio check – if you really must speak to the coastguard, it would be better to use channel 67 (Solent Coastguard) or whatever the channel for the coastguard is in your locality.

The most important of calls is, of course, the Distress Call.  You can assume that a situation can be classed as ‘Distress’ if there is ‘Grave and imminent danger to a person, ship, aircraft or other vehicle requiring immediate assistance.’

The ‘Distress Call’ procedure should be memorised or at the very least displayed by the VHF radio equipment, so that every person on board is in a position to send the call if necessary. Since I first learned to use VHF radio there have been some changes and the most recent of these changes is to the Distress calling procedure.  It is now appropriate to make an initial ‘Distress Call’ and then make a second, follow up call, with the details of your situation.  Personally, I think this is wasting time and the call should stay combined.  Perhaps this is appropriate for a large ship, which will have a number of crew doing different roles and will therefore have the time to make these two calls but on a small vessel with only two people on board, having to make two calls, whilst watching the water level in the cockpit get higher and higher, is not appropriate to my mind – make one call and get back to pumping out the water or putting out the fire or getting off the boat.

I’m sure someone will take issue with me on this and if you do, write to me and we will discuss it.

But, before you do, consider this.  Over the years, all the rules and regulations we use today, which keep us safe and help to prevent accidents, have been learned from experience.  For the most part, these rules and regs are sensible and logical. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that most of you read through my Skipper’s Tips and say to yourselves, “I knew that!”  But the fact of the matter is, these guidelines have been created by human beings like you and me – generally, someone with some considerable experience of boating has said let’s do it like this and because everyone else has said, “OK”, that’s how we do things now. Does that mean this is the best way to do these things? I don’t think it necessarily is.  I suspect that, one day, someone else will come along and say, “Let’s do it this way now” and we will all change to the new method.  What I’m driving at here is, that these rules and regs are, for the most part, a guide. There is some legislation which we have to follow but a lot of what you learn when you take up boating is a guide and it is up to you to use and adapt that information to suit yourself.  If you are happy with what you’ve learned and it works for you, great.  If you’ve adapted what you’ve learned and that works better for you, great.

Let’s come back to VHF Distress Calling procedure.  Once, many years ago, I attended a talk in Seaton, Devon being delivered by a member of the local coastguard to the sailing club.  At the moment I walked in, the coastguard was talking about the procedure for sending a Distress Call.  Having explained the correct procedure he then went on to say, “Frankly, if someone picks up the mic and shouts, ‘HELP’, we will respond and it’s better that they do something rather than worrying about not doing it properly!”

Can you see how utterly sensible that approach is, I can?  If your boat is on fire and you have your wife and children on there with you, are you really going to stick rigidly to procedure? Do it properly if you can but don’t worry if you get it wrong, it’s not the end of the world!

So, if you take issue with what I’ve said write to me, let me know what you think and we can discuss it.

This has been another Captain Corbett’s Adventure.  If I’m not on Jersey teaching a private tuition Day Skipper theory or Yachtmaster theory course, then I’m either spending time with someone on their boat, giving them the confidence to take their boat out with their family and friends on board or I’m off somewhere exotic delivering a boat. Either way, I’ll write it up and put it on the Blog for you all to see, so keep popping back to see my most recent adventures.

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