homepage logo

Safe at Sea: Proper etiquette for VHF channels

By PAT SCHMIDT - | Dec 23, 2020

Our VHF radio is always monitoring Channel 16; yours should be, too!

That said, on several occasions, we’ve overheard strange conversations, ranging from commentary on the driving habits of a nearby boat captain to asking for on-the-water-dining establishments to unprintable remarks about mundane subjects.

This happened again recently, and I was reminded that the time was right for an article on VHF etiquette. Marine VHF radios are an important tool for boaters on the water, and to be most effective they must be used properly. So, “Hey, Bob, this is Pete. I see you over by Marker 16. Having any luck? Caught anything good? Should I head over that way?” is not appropriate on Channel 16. Here is what every radio operator should know and do:


First and foremost, Channel 16 is the Hailing and Distress Channel. Distress communication means the call relates to danger to life and property. This also includes communication including safety bulletins, weather warnings, and talking to other boaters to avoid a collision.

All communications should be short and to the point. Only necessary information should be conveyed.

Marine VHF channels are not “chat lines” and are to be used only to conduct necessary business.

The following is an overview showing how to select the proper channel for your communication.

– When underway, monitor Channel 16, the international distress, safety and calling channel. Listening to Channel 16 ensures that a large number of boats will hear an emergency call.

– Calls are initiated on Channel 16, but must be switched to a working channel as quickly as possible.

CHANNELS 68, 69, 71, 72 AND 78

These are the Ship-to-Ship Channels and are for recreational boaters. On these channels, communication with other boaters to establish location, or arrange meeting places and times and other types of relevant information is appropriate. (A perfect example would be the Bob-and-Pete conversation above.)

The radio call might sound like the following:

“Diva, Diva, Diva, this is Moxie.”

“Moxie, this is Diva. Switch to Channel six-eight. Over.”

“Moxie switching to Channel six-eight. Over.”


Channel 13 is Bridge-to-Bridge Navigation Safety. For contacting other vessels about meeting and passing situations and talking with locks and bridges. (In our waterways, which are loaded with locks and bridges, this is a frequently-used channel.)

As boaters, we need to remember that there many boaters on the water, and communication is key. Be courteous to others. That means keeping your conversations limited to essential information and saving the rest for when you meet or when you’re on your cell phone.

Pat Schmidt is a member of America’s Boating Club of Sanibel-Captiva. For more about the chapter and its boating education courses, visit www.sancapboating.club or contact education@sanibelcaptivasps.org or 612-987-2125.