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VHF Radio Overview for Sea Kayakers

by Kayak Hipster

As paddlers, it's very important for us to be able to communicate with one another when we're out in water, but it's also important for us to get to communicate with other vessels and even the Coast Guards, the authorities if there's ever a case of an emergency. So one of the easiest ways to do that is with a VHF radio. Well, it is essentially a two-way radio that uses frequencies that are already predefined for marine use. So that means every boat out there should have one. The Coast Guard will have it and will always be monitoring certain channels. And then for your group, if you'll have one it's very easy to communicate if you ever get separated or even if you're launching from different locations and you can't talk to each other. And I'm also gonna show two short clips of an incident management class where not only do we get to run through a couple of simulations but we also got to do those with a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter and a U.S. Coast Guard small boat.

So, first there's tons of different channels. The most important to remember is 16. Sweet 16. That's the one that the Coast Guard and all other ships should be monitoring at all times, and then once you've made contact you'll probably be told to move to a different channel so you can carry out a conversation. Now there's dedicated lesser channels and those are the ones that are safe for us to use. They change from place to place, so just check locally what is available to you. For my area, usually, we use channel 68 or 69. Another important thing to remember is that unlike a phone, it's not able to transmit and listen at the same time and that's why there's a very specific protocol to follow when you're using it especially if it's during a distress call. You don't want anything to be missed. Let's do a quick overview on protocol.

Bryan Hansel has a great article on "Paddling Light" where he lists step by step what you should be saying and I'm gonna take you through a quick call as if I'm talking to one of my friends and letting them know that I'm launching somewhere close by. One thing to remember is after you're done saying you use the word "over" so that they know that you're done transmitting and now you're listening.

So it would go something like this. "Kayak Felix, Kayak Felix, Kayak Felix. This is kayak Luke. Please come in. Over." If I don't hear back after a little while, I would say the same thing. "Kayak Felix, Kayak Felix, Kayak Felix. This is Kayak Luke. Please come in. Over."

When Felix hears that, he would probably respond with, "Kayak Luke, this is Kayak Felix. I hear you. Over." So at that point, I know Felix is listening, so we're trying to give my message in a concise and clear manner. "Kayak Felix, this is Kayak Luke. I'm now launching from Marinette Harbor. I will meet you at the southern tip of Glen Island in 15 minutes. Over."

"Hi, Luke. This is Kayak Felix. Roger. I'll meet you in 15 minutes. Out." So since we're on the leisure channel, and it's a conversation between friends, we would probably drop the names in the beginning of every single transmission. However, the very beginning, you definitely should start with the three times of the person you're trying to reach. And then once to identify yourself. And then, at least once in the return, saying that they're receiving you and who they are.

However, if you're contacting the authorities, you need to be very precise and very clear about the protocol because they're very specific in how they talk.

So let's quickly go through an emergency distress call. Remember this is only in a true emergency situation, so I would turn to channel 16 and I would say,

"Mayday. Mayday. Mayday.
This is Kayak Luke. This is Kayak Luke. This is Kayak Luke.
We are one mile south of Glenn island. We have an unconscious paddler. We seek immediate assistance. There are 11 of us in our group. I am Kayak Luke, and I'm in a black kayak. On kayak Luke in black kayak. Over."

I would then wait 10 seconds, and I would repeat until I hear a response.

So this is an example of the time where sharp navigation skills are essential. If you're trying to say where you're located when you're on water, if you have a chart with you and you're able to tell them exactly where you are, then that means help will get to you much, much quicker. But in my message, "One mile south of Glenn island," that might not be enough information. They will try to search for us. If I can say, for example, three landmarks that I can see for my location, they might be able to triangulate and get to us quicker. So having a chart, having a compass, all very helpful if you're trying to give your location to someone else.

Then there's also the compound protocol. That's the same as the Mayday protocol but it's used when it's not a life-threatening situation. So in Bryan Hansel's article, he has a VHF radio cheat sheet which I really recommend you download and take a look at. It's a PDF. You can then print it and have it with you for a class. Scott Brown had actually printed little laminated cards that we could keep with us at all times. Pull a helicopter simulation. We wrapped it up and may believe one of our paddlers was unconscious. In turn, each one of us, was able to relay information to the helicopter to guide it so that it could find us because it was much easier for us to hear the helicopter and see it, than it was for them to find us. Even though we were rafted. So here's that conversation.

Kayaker 1: Coast Guard 6562, this is Kayaker 1, come in.
Coast Guard 6562: Roger, this is Coast Guard 6562.
Kayaker 1: Coast Guard 6562, this is Kayaker 1. We're on your 7:00. Please turn left. Over.
Coast Guard 6562: Left turn.
Kayaker 1: Coast Guard 6562, this is Kayaker 1. We're on you 12:00. Stop turn. Thank you. Over.
Coast Guard 6562: Roger, stop turn.
Kayaker 1: Coast Guard 6562, we should be in sight soon. Over.
Coast Guard 6562: Kayaker 1, Cost Guard 6562, we have you in sight.

Now, for the second simulation, it was also an unconscious paddler, but for this, we got to use a dummy and it was a small boat that came to assist us. And you can also hear the conversation here.

Kayaker 1: Exercise, exercise, exercise. This is Kayaker 1. Over.
Small Boat: Kayaker 1, this is Small Boat. Go ahead. Over.
Kayaker 1: Here we have an unconscious kayaker with us. There's 11 of us in our group. Over.
Small Boat: This is a drill, this is a drill. Kayaker 1, Coast Guard Small Boat, roger. What is your geographical location? Over.
Kayaker 1: We're a mile northwest of Fort Johnson. Over.
Small Boat: This is a drill, this is a drill. Kayak 1, Coastguard Small Boat, roger. We're en route. ETA, 2 minutes.
This is a drill, this is a drill. Kayak 1, Coast Guard Small Boat, we have you in sight off our port bow. We intend to make our approach, however, we're standing by. Our but is anchored. Over.
Kayaker 1: Roger, over.


So, the one thing to know is in both of these conversations I didn't repeat my name three times because we had already been in contact with them. If it was the first time that I was reaching out, I would have said, "This is Kayak 1, Kayak 1, Kayak 1." It was actually extremely hard to try to be concise and to the point and quick when using the radio. But that's one of the things that you should really practice and see what that's like.

So as far as radios, there's tons of them out there. Lots of different companies. This one is an Icom IC-M24. It's all the ones with the least amount of features. This one can float. It's waterproof and also flashes when submerged. I always have it tethered to my PFD just in case. There are channels that repeat the area's weather on a continuous loop so at any point you can turn it on, put that on, and then you'll hear it. Sadly, I'm in a basement right now, so I'm not catching anything. There's a lot more fancier ones. There's some with distress signals. There's some with GPS in them. Always make sure before you go out that it is charged. There's no point in having the radio that you're gonna use as a safety measure if it's not charged.

So a couple of things to remember. One, it uses line of sight, so that means that, for example, the Coast Guard will have very tall antennas to receive from all over the place but for us, sea kayakers, we'll be very, very low in the water. So that means it will broadcast from our height as far as they can go before it hits an obstacle. So that's why it's a good idea to have other means of communications as well such as a cell phone or even flares if you need to send out a distress signal. Another important point to make is that if you're transmitting on a certain channel, every other radio within your range that's tuned to that channel will hear your conversation. I know if you're talking to friends on the weekend, you're not gonna be asked strict in your protocol but keep it polite. Keep it short and know that other people can hear you.

Once again, this was just an overview. I highly recommend you go on YouTube. Research for VHF radio conversations. Listen to real U.S. Coast Guard conversations. It's very interesting to see really what the protocol is like. I was trying to go very quickly. If I missed anything, please leave comments.

And I know that the rules, the regulations, are not the same everywhere but I know that the protocol and using channel 16 is pretty much imposed to be worldwide.

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