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A VHF Primer, the use and misuse of the VHF.

"Mayday, Mayday, this is the Nique", then silence.

A moment later, "Mayday, Mayday, this is the Nique".

The Coast Guard responded, "Vessel Nique, this is Coast Guard Station Lake Worth, please state your position and the nature of your emergency."

The request was met with silence. Could the boat have gone down that quickly?

I was in a high speed Sea Tow towboat on the west side of Peanut Island, less than a half a mile from the inlet. As soon as I heard the initial call, I headed out, violating (don't tell anyone) the slow speed zone.

The Coast Guard again, "Vessel Nique, Coast Guard Station Lake Worth. Please state your position and the nature of your emergency."

Finally, a response, "Coast Guard, I'm out by the sea buoy. My engine won't start. I've got my sails up but am going to need some help getting through the inlet."

At that moment, a collective look of disgust clouded the face of every knowledgeable boater who had been standing by to respond, if needed, to the emergency. One can only imagine the comments that erupted from the Coast Guard Response team, the Florida Marine Patrol, the sheriff's Boats and the local police boats.

I arrived on scene within two minutes of the initial call, expecting to find a group of six-packed sailors. I found, instead, three men in their fifties and sixties on a thirty five foot sloop, whose only fault was a lack of knowledge of proper VHF radio procedures. The skipper's intentions were right on target - his decision a wise one. With an outgoing tide, variable winds and heavy boat traffic, attempting to sail through the inlet without auxiliary power could have placed his vessel and passengers in jeopardy. But his use of a MAYDAY call was an example of ignorance and inexperience (and could have subjected him to a $10.000.00 fine.)

A VHF radio is one of the most important tools on board a boat. Like any other tool, however, there are right ways and wrong ways to use it. The quickest way to determine the competence of a boater is not by his docking abilities but by his use of the radio. A professional will never abuse the VHF frequencies. He knows only too well that someone's life may depend on his ability to communicate.

Let's review some VHF radio procedures and techniques:

MAYDAY Calls - Mayday calls are reserved for situations in which "there is immediate risk of loss of property or life". In other words, if your vessel is sinking or on fire or if someone on board is seriously injured or ill, issue a MAYDAY call. MAYDAY calls are distress calls of the highest urgency. The procedure is simple. Say MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY; this is the vessel ___________, I repeat this is the _________, again the ________ (state the name of your vessel three times). State your call sign. Then begin your message. Say "Mayday, the vessel ___________, state your position (preferably latitude and longitude or by geographical reference), the nature of your emergency, a description of your vessel and the number of people on board your boat. Say again the name of your vessel and your call sign. Stay calm and speak slowly. Then UNKEY the microphone (release the button) and wait for a response. If you get no response after a minute or so, repeat the entire broadcast. If you still get no response, consider the possibility that your radio is not working and be prepared to use flares and other distress signals to solicit help. Use that minute wisely. Get life jackets on everyone, gather emergency supplies, get your flares and any other signaling devices ready and STAY CALM - you, as Captain, need to set the example for your passengers.

If you hear a MAYDAY call, stay off the radio, let the Coast Guard or other enforcement agency handle it. However, take a minute and write down the information given in the broadcast. The Coast Guard does an excellent job of monitoring the VHF airwaves but they can't help if other boaters are "stepping" on their transmission. Once a mayday call is issued, the code of "Silence" goes into effect. You may, in fact, hear the Coast Guard (or the distressed vessel) broadcast, "SEELONCE MAYDAY". This means that everyone other than the distressed vessel and the agency handling the call is required to stay off the radio. A third party may issue the call "SEELONCE DISTRESS". The only exception to this rule is if the Coast Guard specifically asks for help from vessels in the area or if you are required to relay the Mayday broadcast.

Suppose, for example, you are ten miles offshore and you hear a Mayday call. After a two minute waiting period you have heard no response from the Coast Guard and the Mayday transmission is repeated without response. You are then required to perform a Mayday Relay. The assumption is that the vessel sending the call has a weak signal or is too far offshore for the Coast Guard to receive the signal. The procedure for the Relay is the same as for the original transmission except that you use the term "Mayday Relay" and the name and call sign of your vessel.  Don't hesitate to perform the relay - somebody could be dying. You may also relay a MAYDAY call if you actually see a vessel in trouble (on fire or sinking) or have been asked by the distressed vessel's owner or captain to perform a relay.

In part two we'll review PAN & SECURITY Calls as well as the use of the various channels of the VHF frequencies.

A word or two about radio checks first. Radio checks should, whenever possible and especially on busy weekends, be requested on a channel other than 16. Here again, you will notice that the professional will seldom, if ever, request a radio check - and never on channel 16. Radios today are very reliable. If you are receiving, chances are that you can transmit. If you recently installed a radio or have done some work on it, use channel 9 or channel 68. Or you can call Sea Tow on channel 7 or channel 9 for a radio check. We will be glad to respond.

A Quick Review:

MAYDAY calls are only used in situations of "grave and immediate danger" when immediate assistance is required. If, for example, you run out of beer or cigarettes ten miles offshore, regardless of how real that emergency may be to you, the Coast Guard does not consider that to be a reason for a MAYDAY call.

Stay off the radio! All sorts of things happen at a Coast Guard Station when a MAYDAY call is received. Rescue vessels get started, helicopter pilots get called, emergency procedures get initiated and response teams gather. The Coast Guard needs to be able to communicate with the distressed vessel (whose Captain could very well be up to his knees is water and has scenes from the movie "Jaws" running through his head). The Coast Guard, and others like Sea Tow, can determine the vessel's position with RDF (Radio Directional Finder) gear and triangulation - but only if no one else is transmitting on the frequency. Now is not the time to be exchanging recipes for Grouper Picatta.

Standby to assist. If you hear the Coast Guard call for a vessel in the area to assist or if you are in the area and the logical vessel to render assistance, head for the distressed vessel and, when there's a break in the transmissions, call the Coast Guard with your offer to provide assistance.



This article was written by Sea Tow Captain Les Hall

Copyright 1997 � Sea Tow Services International. All rights reserved