When Operating Your Vessel With a VHF Radio What Channel Must You Monitor?

Despite the latest technology, VHF radios (first used in the early 20th century) have always been a reliable means of maritime communication. Operating VHF devices is relatively easy and requires no license for domestic voluntary ships.

However, the FCC has a set of rules for VHF operators, one of which is the monitoring of certain channels when the vessel is underway. So, when operating your vessel with a VHF radio what channel must you monitor?

As an operator, you must keep channel 09 or 16 (the distress channels) on when the radio is not in use. It is to provide immediate help for nearby vessels in need.

When Operating Your Vessel With a VHF Radio, What Channel Must You Monitor?


Recreational boaters must know how to use VHF radio—one of the most popular forms of communication at sea. Why are VHF radios preferred? They sustain signals better than mobile phones and are more flexible than CB radios.

Portable VHFs, for example, are not connected to the vessel’s electrical system. So, when the lights go out, boaters can still contact the authority for help.

In addition, VHF (Very High Frequency) radios have a specific set of frequencies for marine communications, such as channels for distress calls, non-urgent conversations, navigational purposes, and weather forecasts.

With a VHF radio on your vessel, you will gain access to 25 or more marine channels, including international and Canadian ones. Among these, the most important are channels 9 and 16.

List of Channels

You don’t need a license to operate a VHF radio recreationally, but you must have basic knowledge of what channels to use. Here is a list of the most popular VHF channels.

Most-used channels on VHF radios
Channel number Frequency (MHz) Purpose
16 156.800 VHF distress channel
09 156.450 Emergency communication between ships or ships and shore units
12 156.600 Operations at ports
13 156.650 Communication for navigational purposes
67 156.375 Communication for navigational purposes (Commercial ships only)
22A 157.100 U.S. Coast Guard channel
70 156.525 Distress calls for vessels with DSC radios
68, 69, 71, 72, 78A 156.425, 156.475, 156.575, 156.625, 156.925 Open channels for general communication and radio checks of non-commercial vessels
W1, W2, W3, W4 162.550, 162.400, 162.475, 162.425 Receiving NOAA weather broadcasts

Purposes of Each Channel


 01 Channel 16

Channel 16 is a VHF radio safety and distress calling channel. You will tune into this frequency when you, your passengers, or your vessel are in danger and require immediate assistance.

Moreover, you must monitor channel 16 whenever you are not using the radio for other purposes. It is to maintain a listening watch for nearby vessels and come to assist when a boater has an emergency.

When you catch an emergency call, note down the information the caller provides and navigate your vessel toward the victims. At the same time, try to reach the U.S. Coast Guard via channel 22A as the situation might be beyond your capabilities.

Note: Channel 16 is a VHF emergency channel and thus shouldn’t be used for any other purposes.

 02 Channel 09

The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) introduced VHF channel 9 as a sub-channel to channel 16. Channel 09 is for a ship or shore unit contacting a ship in an emergency. Meanwhile, channel 16 is for a boater contacting nearby ships and the authority.

 03 Channel 12

VHF channel 12, a less-mentioned channel, is for regulating traffic at ports. When your ship enters a port, turn on this channel for traffic information and instructions.

 04 Channel 13

VHF channel 13 is reserved for navigational purposes, such as requesting a bridge opening. Military personnel, recreational boaters, and commercial ship operators can all use this channel.

So, tune into it when you’re maneuvering around other vessels in harbors and similar areas.

 05 Channel 22A

In marine radio communication, channel 22A is exclusively for the use of the U.S. Coast Guard.

They might also ask boaters on channel 16 to join channel 22A for important information, such as weather warnings and temporary restricted zones. This is another reason to keep channel 16 on at all times.

 06 Channel 70

Channel 70 is also known as the digital selective calling channel. It is for ships with DSC radio, which is newer than traditional VHF units. DSC paging systems allow for automatic transfers of distress signals.

How to Use a VHF Radio

VHF radio operation is pretty simple. But before you can use a marine radio, you need to perform a VHF radio check procedure as follows:

  • Tune into a channel opened for casual conversations, such as channel 68 or 69.
  • Key the microphone and say the term “Radio Check” three times, then state your boat’s name and location.

You know that the radio is functional when someone replies confirming that they can hear you. When you’re sure your device works properly, follow these steps to transmit a message.

Step 1. Choose a channel that meets your purpose.

Step 2. Turn the Squelch knob until the static noise fades away.

Step 3. Key the mic and start transmitting.

Step 4. Release the mic’s button when you finish.

Pay attention to make your transmission brief, clear, and concise. Don’t occupy the channel for too long.

When Should the Term Mayday Be Used?

When you, your passengers, or your vessel is in imminent danger, and you need immediate help. In this case, make a call on channel 16 and start by saying “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.”




When operating your vessel with a VHF radio what channel must you monitor? You should turn on channels 09 or 16 when the radio is not in use.

Keeping a list of VHF channels and their purposes will help you tune into the right frequency in the future. So, don’t hesitate to save this article and refer back to it whenever you need to. Thank you for reading!

Leave a Comment