How To Talk On A Marine VHF Radio [Radio Etiquette]

What is the correct way of talking on a marine VHF radio? You must use the proper channel for the given situations, communications must follow protocol, and the right language and terminology must be used for every transmission.

A key aspect of being at sea is safety. A VHF marine radio is a means of communication for all situations, particularly emergencies.

And in urgent situations, the last thing you want is for your calls to be lost in translation.

Talking on a VHF marine radio requires you to use the correct channels relative to your needs and know how to communicate your location. Using appropriate vocabulary, knowledge of the NATO (phonetic) alphabet, and following step-by-step protocol for conveying messages is vital.

When using VHF radios for marine communication, finding a channel, tuning in, and starting a conversation is not straightforward.

Below, I will explain the correct procedure, the language and terminology used while talking on a marine VHF radio, the appropriate channels, and what is considered bad etiquette.

How Should You Talk On A Marine VHF Radio?

First of all, you should be aware of who can use a marine VHF, and then you can follow protocol for VHF radio comms at sea.

This is true for emergencies and other communication. The steps are listed below for non-emergency-related communications. 

1️⃣ Identify Your Needs

Why are you trying to establish communication? Even for non-urgent matters, you must know the best and most concise way to verbalize your needs via marine VHF radio.

2️⃣ Identify Your Point Of Contact

Who are you trying to communicate with? This may be another vessel, the marina, or anyone else in the vicinity with a VHF radio.

You also cannot make a general call to anyone in particular and hope for a response. This is not only bad etiquette but also an incorrect procedure. A call must be made to a specific station or vessel.

3️⃣ Call Your Point Of Contact

Use VHF channel 09 to establish initial contact, and be sure to use the correct contact call sign. Be sure to repeat their station name three times, followed by “this is” and your vessel’s name, and end by saying “OVER” and wait for a response.

When contact has been made, move the conversation to the “working” channel and continue.

📻 Example: “Port Royal, Port Royal, Port Royal. This is The Black Pearl. Over”

4️⃣ Identify Yourself

Once your conversation has been moved to a mutually agreed working channel, repeat the first part of step three by saying the station name three times and your vessel’s

5️⃣ Communicate Your Needs

Communicate your needs with the other contact clearly and use the correct terminology, call signs, numbering, and NATO alphabet if required.

6️⃣ Communicate Your Location

Make the location of your vessel known. An approximate location can be given by providing distance and bearing from the nearest landmark.

If you have a GPS, then provide your contact with the coordinates. Exact coordinates only need to be provided in an emergency situation. If moving, then give your heading and your speed in knots.

7️⃣ Wait For A Response

Communication may be slow or stagnant in some instances. If no further response or contact has been made after fifteen minutes, return to channel 09 and repeat the process until a stable line of communication has been established.

8️⃣ Communicate Further Information If Required

When conversing with the contact, provide any further information required by the other vessel or enquire about anything that needs further clarification from your end.

9️⃣ Sign Off And End Communication

When ending a VHF radio call and leaving a specific channel, do not say “OUT”. End the communication by saying, ” Standing by on one (1) six (6)”.

🔟Proceed As Instructed

After you have made contact and communicated your needs, you are free to set sail as you were.

How To Make An Urgent Or Emergency Call On Marine VHF Radio

Distress or emergency calls made on marine VHF radios can change the predicament that you may find yourself in for the better or worse.

Follow the steps below to ensure that your call gets heard, understood, and responded to in time:

1️⃣ Identify the type of emergency you are in. Will you be using “Mayday,” “Securité,” or “pan-pan”? These terms are clarified in the table further down.

2️⃣ Tune your radio to channel 16

3️⃣ Repeat your signal three times. (e.g., ” Mayday. Mayday. Mayday”)

4️⃣ Next, follow with “This is” once, and your vessel name repeated three times.

5️⃣ State your position or location

6️⃣ State what kind of situation you are in (e.g., sinking)

7️⃣ Clarify how many people are on board the vessel and also if any require medical attention

8️⃣ Specify the kind of assistance you would need.

9️⃣ Say “over” once you are done communicating your requirements, but stay near the radio for as long as possible.

🚨 Example of a distress call: “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is The Black Pearl, The Black Pearl, The Black Pearl. I am 5 miles east of Davy Jones’ Locker. We are sinking. Seven people are on board. Over.”

🗣️ Marine VHF Lingo: What It Means And When To Use It

Specific words, codes, phrases, and numbers must be utilized while talking on a marine VHF radio.

Speaking over the radio in your everyday vernacular will confuse people and will likely not be taken seriously. Furthermore, you could end up with a citation or a fine.

Specific Words To Use While Talking On A Marine VHF Radio:

  • Mayday: used for distress calls. Only to be used in grave and imminent danger.
  • Pan-pan: used for potentially dangerous situations but not yet at “mayday” level.
  • Securité: used to alert and bring attention to nearby boaters of something. Such as urgent marine information broadcasts.
  • Affirmative: used instead of “yes.”
  • Negative: used instead of “no.”
  • WILCO: used to say “will confirm.”
  • Roger: indicative of agreement and compliance
  • Over: indicates the end of the transmission message
  • Hear/ read/ copy: shows that your transmission has been heard
  • Stand by: end transmission, but continue to monitor channel
  • Repeat: repeat the last transmission

The NATO Alphabet And How To Use It On A Marine VHF Radio

When required to spell out something, the traditional ABCs you learned in school will be useless here.

At sea, the NATO alphabet is utilized with “I spell” prefacing the word. So, for example, if you were to spell out “whale,” the communication would go as follows: “I spell Whisky, Hotel, Alpha, Lima, Echo.”

The same applies to any letters of the alphabet that need to be relayed. “A” would be Alpha, “B” would be Bravo, and so on.

The Proper Way To Communicate Numbers Over Marine VHF Radio

The numerical system only goes from 0-9 in maritime communications. Therefore, numbers above 9 will be conveyed by first saying “figures” and then the individual numbers.

So if you wanted to say 35 (thirty-five), it would be said as “figures three five.”

Marine VHF Channels: What They Are For And When To Use It

Below are some examples of the channels that are most important and frequently used for maritime communications.

Channel NumberClassificationWhen To Use It
09Commercial and non-commercial boaters callingWhen trying to make contact with another vessel or port, hailing boats
13Bridge to bridgeWhen one vessel needs to communicate directly with another ship.
16International distressUsed for emergency situations only. 
1022 (formerly 22A)Coast guard liaisonRestricted to use by the US Coast Guard. You can receive weather and storm warnings here.
68 Non-commercial working channelAn example of a working channel is where vessels will move communications after making contact through 09 or 13.

Channel 09 is not to be used for conversational purposes. Instead, it is there to make initial contact after you move to a working channel, such as 68.

You can also check out The United States National Cast Guard’s complete list of channels and what they are used for.

Bad Etiquette When Talking On A Marine VHF Radio

Being at sea is a risk within itself. It is, therefore, important that the rules of maritime communication are respected and adhered to.

Communicating via marine VHF radio is no exception. The items listed below are considered bad etiquette and can lead to the perpetrator being fined.

  • Swearing. Keep in mind these channels are open and can be heard by anyone.
  • Not releasing the push-to-talk button.
  • Using casual language or language that does not follow marine protocol.
  • Not monitoring emergency channels and other important ones for the area.
  • Having a casual conversation on an emergency or working channel.
  • Making a fake distress call.

Frequently Asked

How Do You Call A Coast Guard On VHF?

  • Try to remain calm
  • Turn your radio channel to 16
  • Say “coast guard” three times, followed by “this is” and the name of your vessel
  • State your location
  • State your emergency
  • Describe your needs

📢: The Coast Guard can only be contacted in an emergency or urgent situation.

How Do I Make A VHF Call?

1️⃣ Switch on the VHF unit and adjust the “squelch” until there is no more static

2️⃣ Do a radio check, but not on emergency channels. “open channels” such as 68, 69, and 72 can be used for radio checks.

3️⃣ Repeat “radio check” three times, followed by the name and location of your vessel.

4️⃣ Await confirmation from another station that your call has been heard and that your VHF radio is in working order.

5️⃣ Proceed to use the correct channels and terminology to communicate your needs.

You can also check out the YouTube video posted by Sailing Vagabond Epicurean featuring an interview with a US Coast Guard outlining basic procedures and information.

What Is A Push-To-Talk System?

Push-to-talk communication refers to a system whereby a button needs to be pushed to switch between voice reception and voice transmissions. This is a two-way communication mode, but only one person may speak at a time.

📃 Final Words

Understanding and using the correct terminology at sea is vital in boating, especially when communicating with other vessels via marine VHF radios.

Remember the most important channels for emergencies (09, 16, 1022) and the terms you would use for each situation.

If you would feel more comfortable having a “cheat sheet” of numbers and terms near your VHF radio, then, by all means, have one!

Be sure to brush up on the NATO alphabet, register your VHF radio, and familiarize yourself with the terminology so that your transmissions are copied loud and clear!

I’m the founder and chief editor here at Sailing Savvy. I spent a decade working as a professional mariner and currently, I mix those experiences with digital publishing. Welcome, and I hope that we can be the hub you need for safe passage.