If you carry a VHF radio onboard, (a good idea for all boaters) you should maintain a watch on channel 16 whenever the boat is underway. Commercial vessels and all vessels over 20 meters and those carrying passengers for hire are required to maintain a radio watch. (see the Federal Regs… HERE)
Most radios have a memory scan option where you can add specific channels to the memory and press scan. The radio will quickly switch (scan) through and listen to each channel, pausing only if someone is talking on that channel and then resuming the scan.
VHF Channels & Their Use
01A Port Operations and Commercial. VTS * in selected areas.
05A Port Operations
06 Intership Safety
08 Commercial (Intership only)
09 Boater Calling. Commercial and Non-Commercial.
11 Commercial. VTS in selected areas.
12 Port Operations. VTS in selected areas.
13 Intership Navigation Safety (Bridge-to-bridge).
NOTE: Ships >20m length must maintain a listening watch on Ch 13 in US waters.
14 Port Operations. VTS in selected areas.
15 Environmental (Receive only). Used by Class C EPIRBs.
16 International Distress, Safety and Calling.
Ships required to carry a radio, USCG, and most coast stations maintain
a listening watch on channel 16.
17 State Control
20 Port Operations (duplex)
20A Port Operations
21A U.S. Government only
22A Coast Guard Liaison and Maritime Safety Info Broadcasts.
Note: Broadcasts are announced on channel 16, continued on 22a.
23A U.S. Government only
24 Public Correspondence (Marine Operator)
25 Public Correspondence (Marine Operator)
26 Public Correspondence (Marine Operator)
27 Public Correspondence (Marine Operator)
28 Public Correspondence (Marine Operator)
63A Port Operations and Commercial. VTS in selected areas.
65A Port Operations
66A Port Operations Commercial. Intership only.
68 Non-Commercial-Working Channel
70 Digital Selective Calling (voice communications not allowed)
72 Non-Commercial (Intership only)
73 Port Operations
74 Port Operations
77 Port Operations (Intership only)
81A U.S. Government only - Environmental protection operations.
82A U.S. Government only
83A U.S. Government only
84 Public Correspondence (Marine Operator)
85 Public Correspondence (Marine Operator)
86 Public Correspondence (Marine Operator)
87 Public Correspondence (Marine Operator)
88 Public Correspondence in selected areas only.
88A Commercial, Intership only.
* VTS: Vessel Traffic Service is a marine traffic monitoring system established by harbor or port authorities,
similar to air traffic control for aircraft. Typical VTS systems use radar, closed-circuit television (CCTV), VHF
radiotelephony and automatic identification system (AIS) to keep track of vessel movements and provide navigational
safety in a limited geographical area.
How do I make myself understood on the radio ?
Occasionally, because of conditions or distance it is difficult to be understood on the radio (or the phone). When that happens you must be able to revert to a common combination of letters and numbers that can be pronounced and understood by anyone, regardless of their native language. These universal “code words” are called the NATO Phonic Alphabet or International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet which was developed by 31 nations as the standard for voice communications.
NATO Phonic Alphabet
ICAO and ITU
|ALfah||AL FAH||ALFAH or
|Bravo||BRAH voh||BRAH VOH
(1955: BRAH VOH)
|Charlie||CHAR lee||CHAR LEE or
|Delta||DELtah||DELL TAH||DELLTAH or
|Echo||EKK oh||ECK OH||ECKOH or
|Foxtrot||FOKS trot||FOKS TROT||FOKSTROT or
|Hotel||HO tell||HOH TELL||HOHTELL or
|India||IN dee ah||INDEE AH||INDEE AH or
|JEW lee ett||JEW LEE ETT||JEWLEE ETT or
|Kilo||KEY loh||KEY LOH||KEYLOH or
|Lima||LEE mah||LEE MAH||LEEMAH or
|November||NOH vem ber||NO VEM BER||NOVEMBER or
|Oscar||OSScar||OSS CAH||OSSCAH or
|Papa||PAH pah||PAH PAH||PAHPAH or
|Quebec||keh BECK||KEH BECK||KEHBECK or
|Romeo||ROW me oh||ROW ME OH||ROWME OH or
|Sierra||see AIR ah||SEE AIR RAH||SEEAIRAH or
|Tango||TANG go||TANG GO||TANGGO or
|Uniform||YOU nee form||YOU NEE FORM or
OO NEE FORM
|YOUNEE FORM or
|Victor||VIK ter||VIK TAH||VIKTAH or
|Whiskey||WISS key||WISS KEY||WISSKEY or
|EKS ray||ECKS RAY||ECKSRAY [sic] or
|Yankee||YANG kee||YANG KEY||YANGKEY [sic] or
|Zulu||ZOO loo||ZOO LOO||ZOOLOO or
Nadazero (ITU, IMO)
|ZE-RO (ICAO), ZE RO or ZEE-RO (FAA)
NAH-DAH-ZAY-ROH (ITU, IMO)
Unaone (ITU, IMO)
|WUN (ICAO, FAA)
OO-NAH-WUN (ITU, IMO)
Bissotwo (ITU, IMO)
|TOO (ICAO, FAA)
BEES-SOH-TOO (ITU, IMO)
Terrathree (ITU, IMO)
|TREE (ICAO, FAA)
TAY-RAH-TREE (ITU, IMO)
Kartefour (ITU, IMO)
|FOW-ER (ICAO), FOW ER (FAA)
KAR-TAY-FOWER (ITU, IMO)
Pantafive (ITU, IMO)
PAN-TAH-FIVE (ITU, IMO)
Soxisix (ITU, IMO)
|SIX (ICAO, FAA)
SOK-SEE-SIX (ITU, IMO)
Setteseven (ITU, IMO)
|SEV-EN (ICAO), SEV EN (FAA)
SAY-TAY-SEVEN (ITU, IMO)
Oktoeight (ITU, IMO)
|AIT (ICAO, FAA)
OK-TOH-AIT (ITU, IMO)
Nine or niner (ICAO)
Novenine (ITU, IMO)
|NIN-ER (ICAO), NIN ER (FAA)
NO-VAY-NINER (ITU, IMO)
|Hundred (ICAO)||HUN-dred (ICAO)|
|Thousand (ICAO)||TOU-SAND (ICAO)|
. (decimal point)
Decimal (ITU, ICAO)
|DAY-SEE-MAL (ITU) (ICAO)|
. (full stop)
Marine Safety Tip: Sending a VHF Distress Call
You may only have a very short time to send a distress call on the VHF radio. Here is the step by step procedure:
- Turn on and tune your VHF radio to channel 16.
- Say “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY”
- “This is (name of boat )” Repeat boat name three times.
- Describe your boat, such as, size, rig type, color and tell the number of persons aboard.
- Indicate the nature of distress (sinking, fire, etc.)
- Give position by latitude and longitude or by bearing and distance to a well-known landmark or navigational aid, or in any terms that will assist a responding station in locating the vessel in distress. Include any information, such as, vessel course, speed, and destination.
- Indicate the kind of assistance desired.
- End with “over.”
If you do not receive any answer, repeat your call every 2 minutes.
Note: If you are NOT in a life-threatening situation but still are in real need of assistance, use the same procedure as above, EXCEPT that in step 2, you replace the word MAYDAY by the the words “Pan Pan” (pronounce PAHNN PAHNN).
A Tip: Push the button on the microphone to talk, release to listen!
Capt. Rick Delfosse email@example.com
Rick is a Coast Guard captain, the editor of Harbor Talk Weekly, a National Safe Boating Council close-quarters boat-handling and open water boat handling instructor, Connecticut and New York certified safe boating instructor and a US Sailing-certified instructor. He also conducts on-the-water courses and classroom seminars on coastal cruising and boating skills. The owner of a 43-foot pilothouse cutter and an Aquasport powerboat, he has extensive cruising and one-design, coastal and offshore racing experience.