VHF radio etiquette

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“Thanks for the wake, @$$%*#!”  Unpleasant to imagine, unpleasant to hear, and rude on all sides. We haven’t heard that since leaving the USA and I don’t miss this aspect of many boaters in close proximity plus a dose of …well, of whatever it is that prompts throwing a wake or respond like that! They need to go cruising.DSC_1185

Summertime radio chatter included restrained and frequent USCG reminders not to use channel 16 for radio checks, to move conversations away from 16 (reserved for distress and hailing only), and more publicly aired inanity. And more from people who didn’t know how to talk over the radio. Reliance on radio fosters good habits cruisers… eventually. Learning and modeling good protocol pays off. It shouldn’t feel silly, unless you’re prone to slip into CB jargon (“10-4” or “good buddy” have no place on VHF).

Lack of decency aside, a lot of perfectly decent people also simply don’t seem to know how to use VHF radio. Poor protocol hampers understanding at best and creates dangerous situations at worst…and between, a lot of the time just results in frustration.

VHF protocol is to repeat the name of the boat you’re calling two or three times, followed by “this is…” and the name of your vessel twice.

After making contact, request to switch from the hailing channel (16) to a working channel such as 68, 69, or 72 for conversation. The other person should reply confirming that channel, or propose another. Without confirmation, you can find yourself scanning channels to find where the other person went, or if they heard you clearly. Once switched to the working channel, be sure the channel is not already in use before reestablishing contact.

In conversation, saying “over” at the end of each transmission hands the conversational baton back to the other boat. This may be unnecessary if the audio is clear and the other person is familiar. Indicate your departure from the conversation by saying “Totem is clear” or “Totem going back to 16”. “Over and out” (or any jargon associated with CB radio or dated cop shows) is like waving a big red noob flag: “out” is for switching off the radio, not standing by to await response…you go over, or you go out, but you don’t do both.

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Mint- and functional! classic radio telephone spotted in Walvis Bay, Namibia

These may be obvious but the simple act of confirming an action, like “Totem switching to 72,” is often skipped—leaving the listening boat to wonder if the switch actually happened. Radios can be finicky: transmissions get stepped on, have interference, or just aren’t in range. Did the other boat hear your request to switch to 72? We often use our handheld in the cockpit and it’s awkward to flip back and forth from 16 to 72 to find out.

It doesn’t take long to get into the rhythm of good habits, especially if a newer-to-cruising boat can listen to / model from more experienced boats around them. Home waters were another story: our US sojourn was a good reminder not to take VHF protocol and etiquette for granted. A petty spat over the airwaves is unpleasant. Repeated calls on channel 16 by boaters requesting radio checks get old fast. If a boat is speeding or tossing a big wake in a slow or no wake zone, swearing at them out on the radio accomplishes nothing (and is an offense for which you may be fined!). You can always issue a Sécurité call, and be sure to mention the boat by name as a hazard to navigation.

Off Samana on VHF with Akira

Offshore Communications: Satellite or SSB?

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Cruisers anchored off a small beach in the Exumas dinghy in for cocktails and chat while the sun sinks behind a distant cay. Most evenings in this idyllic spot new cruisers and old salts alike meet over plans to go fishing in the sound, the best time to avoid day-trippers in the Thunderball grotto, when the mail/grocery ship is due in this week, or just talk story.

Decaying government dock, Staniel Cay

Decaying government dock, Staniel Cay

We picked this location for the kids and I to hang out while Jamie was away based on the trifecta of people, provisions, and connectivity. Well, theoretical connectivity. We have line of sight to the Staniel Cay cell tower, but it’s been so dysfunctional I used our IridiumGO to load offshore GRIBs via PredictWind three out of the last four days!

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Weather conditions warrant monitoring, like the volatility that set up this little weather bomb a couple of days ago; I do not want to skip a day because I couldn’t connect.

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At beach sundowners the other night, one of the new cruisers commented that he “needed an SSB before cruising farther.” Thinking how I’d been using our Iridium in our near-shore location this week, it prompted me to ask why he expected to add radio and not satellite comms on board. Totem has both, but if we were starting from scratch, we’d pick IridiumGO over the SSB: no question. He seemed genuinely surprised by this, and unfamiliar with the pros/cons and trends in the cruising community. These are reasons I see for the shift (and our preference).pinterest satellite or ssb

With the Iridium, we can update weather any time—offshore, or in the shadow of an uncooperative Bahamian cell tower. With our SSB, it depends on the timing for good propagation , which is generally two windows per day. Even then, it may still be tricky: I tried, but couldn’t hear all of Chris Parker’s forecast yesterday morning. To download a weather product requires a good connection to a land-based station for the internet handshake. Is “any time” such a big deal? I think so.

Setup costs for an SSB run $4-5,000 for radio, tuner, grounding, cables, and pactor modem with DIY installation. An IridiumGO with the couple of extras (an external antenna and quality cable—PredictWind bundles this, and it’s worth every penny) is only about $1,200.

There are ongoing costs, and radio users will tell you theirs is $0, but most cruisers still subscribe to Sailmail (annual fee). It’s cheaper than satellite airtime, but that’s coming down. When you buy an Iridium GO kit from PredictWind, the airtime service partner is SatPhoneStore. We continue to get our airtime from them today: unlike others, you’re not locked in a lengthy contract and it’s possible to change service levels from one month to the next to help contain costs (pay as you go, “unlimited data”, different levels of talk time, etc.). Manage it well, and it’s reasonable to have years of use from an IridiumGO before it exceeds the cost of an SSB kit. Seeing signs of coming volatility in the forecast: priceless. (SatPhoneStore has a discount for Totem readers: skip to bottom of the post for details!)

European model rain wind forecast

Getting a radio install right is a topic of extensive discussion that I won’t touch except to say—it can be complicated. Installing a satellite is only complicated by the fact that getting the cable to the external antenna may feel like wrestling an uncooperative python. Ask Jamie how he feels about this.

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What’s also not complicated about a satellite device vs. radio setup? Using it! Whether that means it gets used more often, or better, this translates to SAFETY. Easier to understand, easier to use, more familiar mode of communication, arcane knowledge not required.

Radio nets were heralded for building cruiser community and providing a safety net. Their ability for 1:many reach (vs satellite’s 1:1) helps. I value the radio conversations with boats in loose company on a passage and in remote areas, but there are fewer voices now. A family who has crossed the Atlantic a several times over the last five years noted the trend: “it was quiet this last trip.” The overwhelming majority of Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) boats do not use HF radio. We had our radio sked with other cruisers, and texted with boats that used sat systems.

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Looking right…

The Garmin InReach offers an interesting, affordable alternative for getting weather and sending position updates from offshore. Back in Florida, we had a great visit with Dave & Carolyn (“The Boat Galley”) Shearlock. Previously SSB users, I knew they relied on a Garmin InReach for much of their Caribbean cruising, and asked her to give me a demo. Paired with a smartphone to improve the user interface, it is an affordable alternative for weather and texting—weather routers like Chris Parker can fit weather updates into the text limitations to send subscribers their customized route guidance. Read more about InReach on her informative site.

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Carolyn demonstrates the InReach on her linked smartphone

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…and left. Even the wide angle couldn’t fit it all in!

Discussion and marketing materials tout value all of the above options for offshore comms in an emergency (although that’s fading with HF, because you need people to be out there listening if you want to be heard), but none is a substitute for having an EPIRB on board. In fact: we have TWO on Totem—and recently added a PLB as well! Our older EPIRB is installed on the bulkhead, and a new ACR unit is in the ditch kit.

girl boat epirb beacon safety

Mairen reads off the UID to register our new EPIRB from ACR. 10 year battery!

To be clear, Jamie and I have amateur radio licenses and Totem has always had a marine SSB. I used to fall solidly in the “HF is best” camp, but after two oceans / 2.5 years with the Iridium it’s a no-brainer. Here in the Exumas, the mail/grocery boat may not have shown up this last week (Bahamian national elections interrupting service) and the internet may be mostly down, but pretty Big Majors has delivered with people, and I’m doing just fine staying on top of weather without ‘normal’ internet.

I’m a fan of SatPhoneStore service and asked if they’d consider passing a discount to readers, and they said yes! Now through July 31, use SAILINGTOTEM in their shopping cart for 5% off your order. Our IridiumGo airtime is through SPS; they carry the full spectrum of satellite devices from a handheld InReach tracker to KVH domes for the truly bandwidth addicted.

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