Marine radio, i.e. radioing on ultra-short wave frequencies, is still indispensable for seafaring in times of smartphones and co. Whether in an emergency, for communication between two yachts or with the harbor, every sailor should master marine radio or at least understand the basics if his own crew with skipper is on board.
What is marine radio, why is it so important and how to radio correctly? That’s exactly what we at Merk & Merk, as one of the leading yacht stores, have taken a closer look at for you in this article.
What is marine radio?
Marine radio refers to wireless communication using radio waves in the field of shipping. It is used to exchange messages, navigation warnings, weather information and other safety-related information between ships and between ships and coastal radio stations. Marine radio plays a crucial role in safety at sea.
What do you need the boat radio for?
Marine radio is indispensable in many situations and is therefore still highly relevant today when you are underway with your yacht. First and foremost, marine radio serves your safety. With it, you can call for help – even in the most remote areas and in strong weather turbulence. At the same time, marine radio ensures communication with other vessels, coastal stations, harbors, pilots, locks and many central contacts, for example, to receive instructions and ask for mooring permits. They can also obtain information about the weather, sea conditions or impassable sea routes.
Especially on busy waterways, marine radio is used to communicate with each other to avoid collisions. Special systems such as the automatic identification system, or AIS for short, are also handled by marine radio. Information about the identity, position, course and speed of ships is automatically transmitted to other ships and coastal stations.
Ultimately, marine radio is part of the mandatory equipment for certain ships along with the communication protocols under the international maritime treaty – Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).
What equipment is needed for marine radio?
A must-have for all sailing and motor yachts when it comes to marine radio is a VHF radio. It enables communication over short distances, for example with other vessels, ports or pilot stations. A VHF radio with Digital Selective Calling (DSC) can also send digital messages via VHF, so that your position and basic information about the boat are automatically sent with every marine radio message via the integrated GPS. In addition, in an emergency situation, the technology can send important information about the nature of the emergency by presetting.
Similarly, the Automatic Identification System (AIS) transmits information about your yacht and course to other nearby vessels, helping to avoid collisions.
For long-distance sailors who want to cover long ocean legs, a medium- or high-frequency marine radio is recommended. MF/HF radios make long-distance communications possible. In addition, if you are traveling in very remote areas, consider a satellite communication system for reliable marine radio. Even when other radio services are unavailable, satellite phone communications remain stable.
Equally important in marine radio may be a Navtex receiver for automatic reception of weather forecasts and navigation warnings, or an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon), which transmits an emergency signal that can be located by rescue services if a yacht needs to be abandoned.
How to radio correctly?
If you want to radio properly, you must follow certain protocols and techniques, as marine radio is based on a clear, defined and internationally standardized form.
Here’s how a marine radio works, for example:
- Choose the frequency or channel you want to radio on. Channel 16 is reserved for emergencies, channel 70 for DSC (Digital Selective Calling) distress calls, and for ship-to-ship communications channel 69 in Germany or channel 72 internationally.
- Have all the information you need ready before you start radioing.
- Hold the microphone about 5 cm from your mouth.
- Make sure your pronunciation is clear and your tone is normal.
- First state the name of the station or vessel you wish to radio, followed by your own vessel name. For example, “Hamburg Harbor Master, Hamburg Harbor Master, Hamburg Harbor Master, this is the sailing yacht Seewind.”
- Wait for an answer.
- If there is no answer after a few seconds, repeat the call.
- Keep communications as short and clear as possible to avoid unnecessarily blocking the channel.
- Use the phonetic alphabet and common boat radio vocabulary presented below.
- The receiver should acknowledge the message, usually with a “Roger” or “Roger.”
- In an emergency, use the word “MAYDAY” three times followed by your vessel name. For example, “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY, this is sailing yacht Seawind.”
- Then describe the nature of the distress, your position, course, speed, and number of people on board.
- To conclude a radio call, you can use “end” or “over” to signal to the other party that you have finished transmitting.
Radiotelephony at sea is subject to legal regulations and sometimes requires certain licenses. A marine radio certificate is usually required to operate a marine radio. There are special courses and exams that you can take to obtain such a certificate and ensure that you have the necessary knowledge. We will be happy to take care of this for you as part of our yacht management and yacht service.
What are the types of marine radio calls?
In marine radio, there are three main special call types, which are differentiated according to the urgency and their importance for the safety of ships or persons.
MAYDAY is the international distress call and always takes precedence over all other marine radio calls. It is only used when there is a serious and immediate danger to ship or persons and urgent assistance is needed.
A MAYDAY call is usually structured like this: “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY, this is [ship name], [ship position], [type of emergency], [other relevant information].”
The PAN-PAN call is an emergency call and is used when the safety of a vessel or person is at risk, but there is no immediate danger to life or vessel. It is used, among other things, when medical assistance is needed but there is no immediate danger to life, or when a vessel is experiencing propulsion problems but this does not result in an immediate danger.
An example of a PAN-PAN marine radio call: “PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN, this is [vessel name], [vessel position], [nature of problem], [other relevant information].”
SECURITÉ is a safety message and is used to alert other vessels of potential hazards, such as an obstruction, lost equipment in the water, or similar situations that may be relevant to nearby vessels.
The SECURITÉ boat radio message may look like this: “SECURITÉ, SECURITÉ, SECURITÉ, this is [vessel name], [vessel position], [information about the hazard or situation].”
It is important that you use marine radiotelephony only when the actual case exists. Misuse, especially of the MAYDAY call, can have legal consequences and is also dangerous because it blocks resources for real emergencies.
Tip: If you don’t have the types, voice routines or which channels are for whom or what in your head, write them down, laminate the document and place it next to your radio. You can also write down your maritime Mobile Service Identities (MMSI) and Automatic Transmitter Identification System numbers (ATIS numbers) here. You apply for the numbers at the Federal Network Agency, Hamburg branch. We are happy to take over the bureaucratic part for you with our services around the yacht purchase.
Vocabulary for marine radio
In marine radio, there are a number of specific terms that are used to make communication clearer and more efficient. After all, the rule is: keep it short and to the point. Internationally valid vocabulary ensures just that conciseness without losing meaning.
The most common marine radio vocabulary, in addition to the aforementioned MAYDAY, PAN-PAN and SECURITÉ, include:
OVER: Signals the end of a radio call and expects a response.
OUT: Signals the end of a radio call and does not expect a response.
ROGER: Confirmation of understanding. It does not necessarily mean agreement.
STANDBY: Please wait.
SAY AGAIN: Request to repeat the last message.
BREAK: Separates parts of a message when more information follows.
ALL SHIPS: The message that follows is for all ships in the vicinity.
RELAY TO: Ask to relay the message to a specific ship or station.
To convey letters clearly, the international phonetic alphabet is also used:
A – Alpha
B – Bravo
C – Charlie
D – Delta
E – Echo
F – Foxtrot
G – Golf
H – Hotel
I – India
J – Juliett
K – Kilo
L – Lima
M – Mike
N – November
O – Oscar
P – Papa
Q – Quebec
R – Romeo
S – Sierra
T – Tango
U – Uniform
V – Victor
W – Whiskey
X – X-ray
Y – Yankee
Z – Zulu
You can actually learn the terms like vocabulary. For this purpose, there are now learning apps and programs that also show you how to use marine radios. In addition, it is advisable to also make a list of the most important words and likewise put them on board near your radio station.
Marine radios or the cell phone after all?
Marine radios are still an indispensable tool at sea today and are much faster and more reliable on the water than a cell phone. The reason for this is simple: the devices are primarily designed for this type of communication. In addition, it is mandatory for all boats and yachts to have a marine radio and to keep it on channel 16. In an emergency, this allows all surrounding boats to be alerted and asked for help or called for assistance.
A smartphone relies on reception from cell towers, which are generally only built near populated areas or along coastlines. On the high seas or in remote areas, cell phone reception becomes weak or fails altogether. Already on land, it is well known that there are often radio holes. Marine radios, especially HF and satellite communications systems, can communicate over long distances, independent of transmitting stations.
In the event of an emergency at sea, it is important to reach as many recipients as possible. When you make a distress call via marine radio, it will be heard by other vessels in the vicinity, coast guard stations and other relevant authorities. A distress call via a cell phone would only reach one location.
It is often necessary for you to communicate directly with other vessels, whether for safety, coordination or other reasons. This can only be achieved with a marine radio. In addition, it is a legal requirement for many vessels, especially commercial vessels, to have certain marine radio equipment and licenses.
Ultimately, marine radios give you access to special maritime services such as weather reports, navigation warnings or the automatic identification system (AIS). A smartphone can’t keep up in this area. But it certainly doesn’t have this claim. That’s what marine radio is for.