VHF Marine Radio
VHF Marine Radio

If you’re heading out on the water, especially for an offshore yacht race, there are certain skills you will want, or may even be required to have onboard. Anytime you’re out sailing it’s important to have someone (or preferably multiple people) onboard who can operate a marine radio.

For crew trying to get a position on an offshore team, this may be a make or break qualification. I was recently asked to help find a qualified radio operator for a significant offshore race; what I did find was that crew with a valid Radio Operator qualification seem to be few and far between!

To help answer a few common questions about becoming a qualified radio operator, we sat down with Neil Driscoll from Above and Beyond Boating to get his insights.

1. Do you need a qualification to operate a VHF marine radio?

“The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) radio regulations require that: marine radios using international maritime frequencies are controlled by an operator holding a certificate of proficiency. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), under the Radiocommunications Act 1992, requires operators of marine radios on vessels and at maritime coast stations (other than those operating solely on 27 MHz frequencies) to hold a relevant Australian marine radio operator’s qualification or an equivalent overseas qualification. A person operating a VHF marine radio without holding an appropriate qualification or being under the supervision of an appropriately qualified person may be breaching the Radiocommunications Act. Penalties include significant fines and imprisonment.

The key focus of legal elements above should be to understand that a person who does not hold a VHF licence yet, can operate the radio under the direct supervision of a person who does hold a VHF licence and that this would be a fantastic opportunity to start giving a person on your boat practice at using a radio.”

2. What is the process to get qualified?

“To become qualified as a marine radio operator in Australia, there is a short multiple choice exam with a practical component that has to be done in person by an approved radio invigilator. Our process is that we have built an online course to help you understand not just how to pass the test, but how to actually use the radio. You run through the course and the practice questions on your own time, and when you are ready you schedule your exam.

The Office of Maritime Communications (O.M.C.) charges a fee when you to sit your radio exam, to process the exam and issue your licence. The licence does not expire. If you have had a licence in the past but lost it, you can contact the O.M.C. and for a small fee they can issue you a replacement licence.”

3. What is the difference between a VHF and an HF radio?

“VHF radio is restricted by the line of sight between the transmitting and receiving aerials. HF does not have this restriction. Generally speaking, VHF radios are easier to operate as there are less components to go wrong or understand, VHF radio is significantly less expensive to instal and is widely used and monitored. HF radios have some applications for vessels racing in Category 1 and 2 races, some commercial vessel and are used in a variety of blue water cruising networks.”

4. When might you need an HF radio qualification?

“In short, you need an HF radio qualification to operate or supervise the operation of an HF radio. If you are not planning to be the radio operator for races that require the use of HF or on a boat that is carrying HF then the VHF licence is what you would need. If you plan to be the radio operator of an HF radio then you would want to gain an HF qualification.”

5. When should I send out a Mayday call on a marine radio?

“A Mayday call is only to be used when your yacht is threatened by grave and imminent danger. An example of this would be an uncontrolled onboard fire or medical emergency such as a heart attack. It is for the skipper to decide the basis of life being in severe and imminent danger, so if in doubt get help and stand it down.

If you have an emergency that is not considered ‘grave and imminent’ you can send out a ‘Pan Pan’ distress call instead.

The urgency difference between a Mayday and Pan Pan is largely based on reading a situation you are unlikely to have experienced before, so don’t be afraid to get help with a Mayday. If later it turns out you could have used a Pan Pan you will still have potentially saved a life and or vessel.”

6. We have a DSC button on our marine radio – what does this do?

“DSC stands for Digital Selective Calling, it is part of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS).

Digital Selective Calling is a way to send a pre-defined message from your VHF or HF radio during an emergency, including your unique MMSI identifier and vessel’s location if connected to a GPS.

If possible your DSC radio should be linked to a GPS to transmit your position and distress message. After sending a DSC Mayday you should follow it with a voice Mayday. The DSC Mayday will be readable for a much greater distance than the voice Mayday. It’s important to note that if a DSC radio does not have an MMSI programmed then nothing will happen if you push the distress button.”

(The ACMA has a great video explainer on DSC available here).

7. If a radio has DSC capabilities and does not have an MMSI number programmed into it can I use the DSC capabilities?

“No, so if you have not programmed an MMSI number into the DSC radio then even if you push the distress button on the radio then nothing will happen.”

8. Is it hard to get an MMSI number?

“No, but you do need a radio licence. You can manage your MMSI number application with AMSA in the same account you register your EPIRB in. They just need to check your details and the boat and radio information and then you upload your radio licence to the system and the issue your MMSI within a few days at no charge.”

10. How can you learn more about using a VHF marine radio?

“Above and Beyond Boating offers an online VHF Marine radio course that covers all of the core information you need to operate a VHF radio and pass the qualification test. This includes:

  • Distress and safety procedures, using the voice and digital options available;
  • How to respond to an emergency call;
  • How to ensure that your messages are understood and that others know how to respond;
  • How to carry out a radio check and log on or off with services such as Marine Rescue;
  • How to use and register your EPIRB or PLB;
  • How to get an MMSI number on successful completion of your radio course.”

Click here to find out more or register for Above & Beyond Boating’s VHF Radio and other online courses.