Lessons Learned – by Pat Carson

Lessons Learned

What’s New With The VHF Radio

Of the many questions that I get from new boat owners, usage and operation of the VHF is at the top of the list. The three most common questions are – What are all the channels for and which ones can I use? What is the difference between U.S., Canadian and International settings? And why do some have the A after the channel number? All good questions, so I thought that I would answer them here.

The VHF radio is one of the best safety devices we can have on board our vessel. Before you purchase anything else, make sure you have a VHF marine radio. Photo courtesy of USCG.

What Channels Do I Use?

Every VHF marine radio channel has a use designation. Many of the commercial fishing boats and some recreational boaters have their own favorite channel on which to communicate, and you might be surprised that the VHF marine channel that you have been using for years is reserved for commercial traffic. Most everyone is aware that channel 16 is for hailing and distress, but do you know the rules regarding the other channels? An example would be channel 09 which is used to hail bridges in the Delta, but is also a secondary hailing channel in parts of the United States. In 1992 the Federal Communications Commission established channel 09 as a supplementary calling channel for non-commercial vessels at the request of the Coast Guard. A ship or shore unit wishing to call a boater would do so on channel 09, and anyone wishing to call a commercial ship or shore activity would continue to do so on channel 16. Recreational boaters would continue to call the Coast Guard and any commercial facility on channel 16. The purpose of the FCC regulation was to relieve congestion on VHF channel 16, the distress, safety and calling frequency. FCC regulations require boaters that have VHF radios to maintain a watch on either VHF channel 09 or 16 whenever the radio is turned on and not communicating with another station. For the San Francisco sector, we continue to keep our radios set to channel 16 and use channel 09 for contacting bridges.

The old A channels will now be known as 1021, 1022, and 1023 with no “A” or “alpha” suffix.

Since the Coast Guard generally does not have the capability of announcing an urgent marine information broadcast or weather warning on channel 09, the use of this channel is optional. It is generally recommended that we continue to keep our VHF radios tuned to and continue to use channel 16.

As recreational boaters we are allowed to use channels listed as non-commercial for non-priority communication. Once contact is established with another recreational vessel, we then select one of the five non-commercial channels, 68, 69, 71, 72 or 78A, to carry out our conversation. Remember, these are all shared channels, and if a particular channel is already in use you will need to select another or wait until the current users are finished with their communication.

Channel 13 should be used to contact a commercial vessel to make navigational arrangements or when there is danger of collision. Channel 13 is designated for use on a world-wide basis as a navigation safety communication channel, primarily for inter-ship navigation safety communications. It may also be used for the ship movement and port operations service subject to local regulations.

All vessels 20 meters (65 feet) or greater in length are required to continuously monitor VHF channel 13, in addition to VHF channel 16 when operating within U.S. territorial waters, unless they are participating in San Francisco Vessel Traffic Services. Sequential monitoring techniques such as scanners cannot be used to meet this requirement. Two radios including handhelds or one radio with two receivers, are required.

In San Francisco Bay, the Delta North to Sacramento, South to Stockton and a 38-mile radius from Mt. Tamalpais past the Golden Gate Bridge, every power driven vessel greater than 40 meters in length (131 feet), every towing vessel greater than 8 meters in length (26 feet) and every vessel that carries more than 50 passengers for hire must report vessel movement to Vessel Traffic Services on Channel 14 inland and Channel 12 offshore.

Vessels are not required to keep a listening watch on channel 16 when a listening watch is maintained on both the vessel’s bridge-to-bridge frequency, channel 13, and a designated VTS frequency, channel 12 or channel 14. If you need to communicate with any of these commercial vessels, they are most likely not listening to channel 16 – use channel 13. These vessels are required to use AIS, so the vessel name should appear on your AIS equipped Chartplotter or VHF radio.

What Is The Difference Between U.S., CAN and INT Settings?

The mode switch for selection of U.S., Canadian and International channels is probably known more for becoming a barrier to communications when set to the wrong position. Many of the channels are different and cause confusion when your radio is set to “INT” or “CAN,” and you should be on “U.S.” as some channels are used differently in the U.S., Canada and in the rest of the world.

Tear out or photo copy this list of VHF channels and their authorized use. The yellow highlights are the non-commercial channels recreational boater are authorized to use.

Most channels are simplex where we all talk on the same frequency; however, some are duplex where two frequencies are used allowing two stations to talk at the same time, similar to a telephone. Where the United States has designated an otherwise duplex channel as a simplex channel for use in U.S. waters, the channel has the “A” character when in U.S. mode.

Popular examples include 21A, 22A, 23A and 78A. These first three channels are used by the USCG and channel 78A is one of the non-commercial recreational boater channels. Those channels are simplex in the U.S. but not when operating in International mode, thus the Alpha designation in the United States. If you try to communicate with another station on 78A whose radio is set to “INT” and you are on “U.S.”, you will not hear their transmission.

There are three United States Government agencies, the Federal Communications Commission, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the United States Coast Guard along with two international organizations, the International Telecommunications Union and the International Maritime Organization that working together have each established marine radio watch keeping regulations. Regulations on radio watch keeping exist for all boats and ships whether commercial, recreational, government, military, domestic and foreign that carry marine radios.

The International Maritime Organization or IMO regulates the outfitting and operation of most vessels engaged on international voyages, except warships. Most IMO radio regulations affect all passenger ships and other ships of 300 gross tonnage and upward. IMO rules affecting radio are promulgated in the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention, which has been ratified in the United States.

The Federal Communications Commission or FCC regulates all sales, marketing, and use of radios in the United States, including those on board any recreational, commercial, state, local government and foreign vessel in United States territorial waters.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration or NTIA, regulates all use of radios on board any federal government vessel, including military vessels. NTIA rules do not apply outside the federal government.

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) regulates carriage of radio on most commercial vessels, foreign vessels in Unites States waters, survival craft and vessels subject to the Bridge-to-Bridge Act (generally all vessels over 20m in length) and operating in a Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) area.

What’s with the A At The End of Some Channels?

Here in the United States, it was decided long ago to split several frequencies so that they could be used for both ship to ship and ship to shore communications as a simplex frequency. For example, the ship transmit side of channel 22, 157.100 MHz, was chosen resulting in the new channel becoming 22A. Had they chosen to use the coast transmit frequency the new channel would have become 22B. In Canada they changed some of the same channels to simplex, but used the coast transmit frequency instead and added the letter B as the suffix. Put your VHF radio in CAN channel set and you will see this. The answer to all this confusion comes from international politics and agreements. According to the Radio Technical Commission for Maritime Communications, RTCM, as of Jan. 2019 the simplex channels dropped the suffix “A” and “B”. and now the numbers 10 or 20 will proceed them instead. In an effort to harmonize global communications the ITU proposed using the ship’s transmit frequency, then the basic channel number would be preceded by a “10” and if the coast transmit frequency is being used, to precede it with a “20”. So, what used to be “Channel 22A” is now “Channel 1022”. In Canada where they often use the “Coast Transmit” side of duplex frequencies, such as their use of “Channel 21B”, the new channel designator is now channel 2021.

The International Telecommunications Union has renumbered the Alpha channel used in the United States or when your VHF radio has “U.S.” channel set selected. They will now be known as 1021, 1022 and 1023 with no “A” or “alpha” suffix. The Canadian channels that had the suffix “B” or bravo will now have the prefix 20 such as 2022.

Note that the four-digit channel number beginning with the digits “10” indicates simplex use of the ship’s station transmit side of what had been an international duplex channel. These new channel numbers, now recognized internationally, were previously designated in the United States by the two-digit channel number ending with the letter “A”. That is, the international channel 1005 has been designated in the U.S. by channel 05A, and the U.S. Coast Guard channel 1022 has been designated in the U.S. as channel 22A. The four-digit channels beginning with “20”, sometimes shown by the two-digit channel number ending with the letter B indicate simplex use of the coast station transmit side of what normally was an international duplex channel. The United States does not currently use “B” or “20XX” channels in the VHF maritime band. Some of the new VHF transceivers are equipped with an INT/US switch to avoid conflicting use of the 20XX channels. Some VHF transceivers have the ability to show the four-digit channel numbers, and all new models will have this ability. How soon stations will be requesting that you “switch” and answer on channel 1022 is anyone’s guess. While an imperfect solution, it may prove easier to have numeric only channel designations and no more INT/ CAN/U.S. selection.

Lessons Learned

At first glance, this looks more onerous than it is. The frequency of the Alpha channel and the new 10xx four-digit channel will not change. Those of us with older radios will be able to access the new four-digit channels simply by selecting the older corresponding Alpha channel. What might create problems in the beginning is that handlers with older radios will have to take the time to figure out and get used to what channel to switch to when asked to switch to channel 1078, and will need to check that they have the U.S. channel set selected.

The VHF radio is one of the best safety devices we can have on board our vessel. Before you purchase anything else, make sure you have a VHF marine radio. It is probably also the least expensive electronic device we have. If you plan to travel more than a few miles offshore, plan to purchase a second VHF radio.

Pay attention to which channels you are authorized to be using for communication and minimize the chances of interfering with someone else’s conversation.

As a final reminder, when you sell your vessel or make a new purchase do not forget to deregister the MMSI and then reregister with your correct information. All the other safety equipment on your vessel, EPIRB, SART, PLB, etc. use the data that is registered with the MMSI. In an emergency, time is of the essence and delays can be fatal.

Until next month, I am going to sit back, enjoy a fine port and cigar as I scan through the new 10xx channels. Until then, please keep those letters coming. Even the ones where you slam me for my oversights. Have a good story to tell, I love a good story. Have good photos of right and wrong, please send them and I will include them in next edition of “is it right or is it wrong.” patcarson@yachtsmanmagazine.com