Select Page

There are many ways to communicate with others at sea. What makes the VHF DSC radio the best form of short range communication and why is it recommended?

 078_VHF panel diagram

The controls of a basic VHF DSC radio

There are many ways to communicate with others at sea, ranging from signal flags to satellite phones. While it is not a legal requirement in most countries, leisure vessels are strongly encouraged to use VHF DSC (Digital Selective Calling) radio as their primary means of communication, since this is used by the rescue authorities and commercial shipping.  VHF has a maximum range of up to about 30 nautical miles, but for ocean cruising SSB radio is the preferred option as it has a much better range than VHF.

Is VHF DSC radio really necessary for inshore sailing?

It is a mistake to believe that a mobile phone is all that is required for inshore sailing. Mobile phones are a useful back up means of communication but cannot be relied on, as even when close to the shore signal can easily be lost.

VHF DSC radio features

A VHF DSC radio allows users:

  • to communicate with shore-based VHF users such as the Coastguard, harbour masters, lock-keepers and marinas
  • to dial up other vessels by using a unique identity number
  • to have one to one conversations with other vessels
  • to send distress alerts at the touch of a button
  • to automatically send your vessel’s identification number and position to others

Operator’s licence

Anyone who uses a VHF DSC radio must have an operator’s licence, the Short Range Certificate.  In an emergency, any crew member can use the radio, but it is advisable for those who sail regularly to do the one day course and get their own certificate, so that if for any reason the skipper is unable to use the radio, there are others aboard who know the correct radio procedure and can act quickly if the need arises.

078_VHF function display

A VHF DSC radio that is linked to a vessel’s GPS shows its position on the display screen, as well as the current time

Fixed radios vs handheld

VHF DSC radios are available as fixed radios attached to a vessel or as handheld, personal radios. It is a good idea to have both types aboard. Fixed radios are generally more powerful and have a better range than handheld radios.  The fixed radio’s range is greatly improved when its antenna is fixed to the top of a tall mast. Handheld radios are smaller, portable, most are waterproof and can be very useful in an emergency.

Emergency calls

When a VHF DSC radio is turned on it automatically monitors Channel 70 for emergency calls.  If another vessel transmits a digital alert then this is picked up by the receiver and causes a high pitched audio alarm to sound.  The position of the vessel in distress and the time of the signal are given in text format.  Voice communications can continue on Channel 16 as with a standard VHF radio.

  • In an emergency anyone may use a VHF DSC radio to call for help on Channel 16.
  • A VHF DSC radio may be operated by a non-qualified user under the supervision of a qualified operator

For a complete guide to VHF DSC radio operation, see the Reeds VHF DSC Handbook app:http://safe-skipper.com/reeds_vhf_dsc_handbook/

Safety Briefings – leave nothing to chance

Before giving your crew a safety briefing, it is worth considering the specific circumstances of the planned trip, the...

2023 Rolex Fastnet Race – Part 3

This is our third and final article about the 2023 Rolex Fastnet Race. It is a first hand account by Simon Jollands who was one of the crew of Lancelot II, a Beneteau First 40 skippered by John Gillard.

How to cope with an emergency at sea

A safe skipper will be mentally prepared for all kinds of potential emergencies happening at sea, including medical emergencies, engine failure, fire, a holed hull, capsize and dismasting.

Sending distress signals

In an emergency situation at sea, it is a top priority is to know how to send and receive emergency radio calls and alert others of your predicament. Likewise, if you receive a distress signal, you must be ready to go to the help of others.

Jester Challenge 2022 – Sailing single handed from Plymouth UK to the Azores: Part 5 – Boat Management

Jester Challenge – A modern experiment in old-fashioned self-reliance, self sufficiency, and personal responsibility. This is the fifth of a 10-part post where solo sailor, Bernie Branfield, shares his first hand account of his single-handed, 2022 Jester Challenge, from Plymouth, UK to the Azores, in his 26′ Invicta Mk2, Louisa.

Sailing to windward – how to take advantage of wind shifts

For most sailors, sailing upwind is the most exhilarating point of sail as you tack your way to your destination. Sailing to windward is a bit like zig-zagging your way up a mountain road through a series of hairpin bends – great fun but also calling for concentration and hard work.

ColRegs when sailing single handed

  Don’t neglect the Colregs when sailing single handed Sailing single-handed represents several challenges for skippers, not least how to...

Essential Boat Safety Briefing

Skippers Responsibilities Skippers are obliged to give a safety briefing to the crew even if they are a regular crew. At...

Sail care and maintenance – Part 1

When thinking about the care, maintenance and repair of sails it helps to have some understanding of the properties of the ever growing range of modern sailcloth and the fibres they are made from, as opposed to the traditional canvas sails of the past.

Anchoring – getting it right is not always straightforward

If you can set an anchor correctly with confidence and know your boat will be safe in a secure anchorage, then you can rest...

Steel and Aluminium Hulls

The two metals used for hull construction are steel and aluminium. These are both very strong materials and will last a long time as long as they are cared for, which primarily means protecting steel boats from rust and aluminium boats from electrolytic action.

Jester Challenge 2022 – Sailing single handed from Plymouth UK to the Azores: Part 3 – Preparations

Jester Challenge – A modern experiment in old-fashioned self-reliance, self sufficiency, and personal responsibility. This is the third of a 10-part post where solo sailor, Bernie Branfield, shares his first hand account of his single-handed, 2022 Jester Challenge, from Plymouth, UK to the Azores, in his 26′ Invicta Mk2, Louisa.

How to tackle osmosis

Many owners of old GRP boats live in fear of osmosis, but what exactly is osmosis and what can be done about it? Osmosis comes about...

Boat engine fuel system

If engines are installed and serviced correctly then most marine engines are very reliable, but one of the most important parts of the engine to check and service is the fuel system.

Antifouling for leisure boats – Part 4

Applying antifouling. Antifouling is best applied on a dry, calm day. It is best to apply the antifouling in the middle of the day to ensure the hull is dry and as warm as possible.

Stress cracks on GRP boats

It is quite common to find cracks in the gelcoat when inspecting the deck and superstructure of a GRP boat. It is important to differentiate between a gelcoat crack and a scratch.

Man Overboard Drill

How to respond to crew overboard under sail • Keep the MOB in sight • Tack into the heave-to position, do not adjust the...

Marine engine oil system maintenance

The regular maintenance of a marine diesel is key to preventing engine failure at sea. This means doing regular checks of the fuel, cooling, electrical and oil systems.

Keel design – options to consider when choosing a yacht

Keel design is constantly evolving and nowhere is this more apparent than in modern racing yachts such as the Imoca Open 60...

Sailing & Motoring in Fog

Sailing & Motoring in Fog You can only measure the visibility accurately if sailing & motoring in fog when you have...

The dangers of running aground in a motor boat

The peril of grounding a motor boat is not only an inconvenience; it can lead to substantial risks for both the vessel and its passengers. . In this article, we’ll explore the potential dangers of running aground and highlight the importance of proper navigation and preparedness to avoid these hazards!

Keel maintenance and repair – Part 1

Keels are designed to act as underwater foils that generate lift as the boat moves through the water, counteracting the leeward force of the wind and enabling the boat to sail closer to the wind. Keel maintenance and repair is essential for the performance of your boat.

Sector lights, directional lights, leading lights – how do they differ?

Sector lights, directional lights and leading lights guide vessels safely through hazardous waters or narrow channels at...

Essential Boat Buying Tips for First-Time Boat Owners

The first question that comes to mind when thinking about buying a boat is: what type of boat? There are more than 20 different kinds, of different sizes, for different purposes, and different pockets. So, your first step is to decide your boat type.

Boatyard Health and Safety

Boat storage facilities are potentially hazardous environments and it is the responsibility of both boat owners and boatyards to ensure that the...