Its Your Call - Marine VHF.

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So, your day’s been going from bad to worse and now you’re in the middle of nowhere, some way offshore, and it’s all gone wrong. The weather has been steadily worsening, your friends are cold and tired and what’s more, you’ve got a serious casualty to deal with. You’ve managed the situation pretty well up to this point but it’s time to accept that you need help and you need it right away. Even though it’s just a mates trip; you’ve done everything by the book and left a passage plan with the Coastguard. You got plenty of stick for filling in those forms but now it’s reassuring to know they hold all your details on file. Hang on though; no one will raise any alarm yet because the group isn’t due back for hours. Sod’s law - there’s no mobile coverage here; at least you can rely on the VHF radio to call for help.

Moments later you have talked with the Coastguard and feel a huge sense of relief. The Coastguard was so calm; but so are you now. They now know you have a problem, what sort of problem it is and where you are. They’ve even dispatched professional help out to join you, what’s more, a fishing boat and a yacht have joined in to say they are close and could help – aren’t people great! That VHF set is worth every penny! They’ve called again now just to check where you are and how things have developed. It won’t be long now - you’re sure you can see the lifeboat; oh yes there they are calling us up on the radio. Imagine how things could have gone. No radio, no mobile coverage, no one to see a flare!! It may surprise you to learn that getting a marine VHF radio and learning how to use it properly isn’t difficult or expensive.

You’ll need to buy a radio of course, but a basic set is a lot less than you might think. Good quality brand new sets can cost less than £50 (considerably less than this for second-hand brand named units on your favourite ‘internet auction site’). There are two main types of marine VHF radio. The first type, generally newer, is Digital Selective Call (DSC) radios and these have in-built features like push-button distress calls, GPS, they are waterproof and float. The second type is the standard VHF radio; the vast majority of VHF sets in use today are like this. They are basically the same as the DSC sets without all the add-ons. At present, there are plenty of bargains to be had because the market is very competitive and as the better-off users upgrade to DSC sets the standard units tend to cost a lot less. Having a basic VHF radio set (maybe as well as a mobile phone) means you can stay in touch and it isn’t just useful for when things go wrong. You can listen to the regular inshore and shipping weather forecast broadcasts, receive information about any hazards in your area, including port operations and updates about marine traffic, and have a chat with other kayakers or in fact anyone else turned-on and tuned-in. 

It’s a pretty impressive list which shows that the radios are versatile and useful on a whole number of levels. So if they’re cheap and so useful there must be some other major barrier to having one. Is it that you need a licence? You can get a licence by attending a one day course. The course will cover how to say things when on the radio and can cover the DSC aspects too. This means you can get a unique DSC identity known as a Mimsy number (MMSI - Maritime Mobile Service Identity). There will be a separate article on the advantages to paddlers of the DSC system. As paddlers, we tend to be in closer contact with the sea compared to most other water users. So the radio is likely to get wet. By putting the handset inside a protective waterproof case you can make an inexpensive set waterproof and ensure it floats. It can then be kept handy in a buoyancy aid pocket (it won’t be much use buried in the bottom of a watertight compartment). When choosing what to buy, think about the ease of use (e.g. imagine you are swimming and have numb fingers). Waterproof sets can be small enough to clip to a shoulder strap on the front of your body. Think about extended trips too. Keeping the radio charged on the expedition can be a challenge. Most manufacturers offer an optional battery pack as an accessory. These take AA batteries and a fresh set of batteries can be fitted in the campsite when required. This is a lot easier than trying to keep your mobile ‘phone charged throughout a two-week trip!

Sea paddling offers all sorts of opportunities to see great natural spectacles and get close to wildlife. So learning how to set-up the receiver (using what’s called the squelch control) will avoid having an annoying noise maker blaring out sound like that of a sizable waterfall; particularly when you are trying to get close to wildlife. You are in control, and apart from the volume and squelch settings, can choose to turn the set on and off as you like. One way of keeping the radio off most of the time, whilst working with others, is to pre-arrange to turn on for an agreed 10 minutes say on the odd-numbered hours. There are plenty of options. Having the ability to use a VHF set is important to British canoeing, so much so that there are plans to include VHF training as a valid British Canoeing coach update. Soon you’ll be able to attend a sea kayak symposium, learn how to use a radio, get a licence and a coaching update and all for a modest fee. While you’re at it, why not learn how to use GPS sets properly too! There is plenty of help on offer to make sure you can continue to safely enjoy your paddling. Make the most of what's out there - it's your call.

Courtesy of Canoe Scotland

Published On: 11th June 2015