Broadley: For proper VHF radio etiquette, remember the ‘5 Cs’


The marine industry is unique. Aviation relies on oversight with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) directing traffic via voice radio communication to avoid aircraft incidents. Railroads use radio communication, along with visual signals, but again with oversight by the operators of the rail line. With maritime, as far as collision avoidance and Rules of the Road compliance are concerned, vessels rely on mutual agreement primarily using radio communication. Sound signals are specified in the Rules of the Road but, in reality, are only a backup. Even in Vessel Traffic System (VTS)-controlled areas, the arrangements for meeting and passing have to be agreed upon between the individual vessels, again utilizing VHF radio communication.  

The U.S. Federal Communication Commission (FCC) is responsible for publishing and enforcing the regulations for all radio communication. This includes U.S.-flagged vessels and foreign vessels when navigating in our regulated areas. The mariner should periodically review these regulations which are available on the Internet and are published in various FCC documents. Most of these regulations deal with types of equipment, types of operator’s licenses and assigned frequencies, but very little is devoted to procedures and nothing is discussed about proper radio etiquette. For the most part, VHF radio procedures and etiquette have been accepted practices, passed down from one generation of mariners to the next. 

If you consider what is involved, this is really amazing. The professional pilots, masters, mates and everyone who is part of this industry can be very proud of maintaining and using a system that needs little oversight and hasn’t changed significantly since VHF radio communication took over from whistle signals as the primary means of Rules of the Road compliance. Through the years there have been many advances with all maritime communication, especially with the incorporation of Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) on commercial vessels, but the basic voice VHF bridge-to-bridge communication system has remained unchanged. Every professional mariner with whom I have discussed this subject has agreed that, no matter what, the party-line vessel-to-vessel communication system, generally using VHF Channel 13, has to be preserved. Every master or pilot wants to hear a voice spoken by the person conning the other vessel, either proposing or acknowledging an agreed upon action. 

What do we need to do to keep this system efficient and effective? Some general guidelines, mostly common sense, have evolved over the years. Most apply to usage of VHF Channel 13 and Rules of the Road compliance, but they are appropriate for all VHF radio communications. 

Good radio communication can be expressed using four “C” words that are easy to remember: CLEAR, COMPLETE, CONCISE, and CORRECT. There is a fifth “C” word, that is in a category all its own because of its often overlooked importance, “COURTEOUS.” 

CLEAR: When you first learned to talk, you learned that there is an inside voice and an outside voice. As the years went along, you learned that there is a conversational voice, a stern voice and a happy voice. Then you learned a public speaking voice and even a telephone voice. There is also a proper “Radio Voice.” It is lower and slower with very clear pronunciation, especially with the consonants. Mumbling, after it gets transmitted and received through all the electronics, can be unintelligible. Try speaking various ways into the recorder on your iPhone and chose the tone and pronunciation that is the clearest and easiest to understand.

COMPLETE: Federal regulations CFR Title 47, Subpart C, 80.102 requires that every ship and shore station identify themselves by the appropriate call sign at the beginning and end of every transmission. There is provision that the vessel’s, or authorized shore station’s name can be substituted for the call sign, but only on VHF Channel 13.  The accepted interpretation of this CFR is that every transmission should have the name of the vessel or shore station included at least once in every transmission. The most common protocol is to start the transmission with the vessel’s name that you are calling to get their attention, followed by your identity.  Example: “Tug Captain Henry T. O’Brian, this is the tanker Sinclair Ohio.” 

Some vessels’ names are long or hard to pronounce, but, after an initial contact, can be abbreviated to cut down on the air time as long as the individual identity is preserved, i.e., Captain Henry T. O’Brian can become “Henry T.” for a repeated transmission (unless the Captain Henry T. Littlefield is also in the area).

Every transmission should include at least one complete sentence. With radio transmissions, especially when using VHF Channel 13, brevity is good, but you still must express a complete thought, i.e. “Henry T. – One” is too brief. “Captain Henry T. acknowledges one whistle meeting the vessel’s name” is better.

Federal regulations CFR Title 47, Subpart C, 80.89 states, in part, that every VHF transmission is only allowed between two ship stations or a ship station and a shore station with the exemption of general safety calls, urgent calls, or distress calls. General safety calls are prefaced by the French word “sécurité,” which almost everyone incorrectly pronounces as “security,” repeated three times. Urgent calls, which are rarely used, are prefaced by the word group “pan-pan,” commonly pronounced “pon-pon” from the French word “panne,” repeated three times. Distress calls are prefaced by the word “mayday,” repeated three times. Radio checks are allowed, but strongly discouraged on VHF Channel 13, and only by authorized personnel on VHF Channel 16. Radio traffic between vessels and aircraft are allowed in very limited situations.

General safety calls on VHF Channel 13 are routinely used when leaving a berth or anchorage, approaching a blind turn, or about to enter or block a main navigational channel. Also, some ports have established suggested locations where vessels broadcast general safety calls when passing, i.e., inbound at Norton Point in New York Harbor, eastbound in the C&D canal at Biddle Point. Generally these are just common sense, but sometimes they are published in the appropriate Coast Pilot or other local knowledge publications. General safety calls are very important and should be used, but not overused. All vessels listen when they hear “sécurité, sécurité, sécurité,” or “security, security, security.”

CONCISE: If you want to discuss something at length, wait until you are face to face, call on a cell phone or use another channel. VHF Channel 13 communication is for short and focused communication. An example of a communication that is too long and complex is: “This is the tug Bridgett T. answering the outbound ship. I intend to meet you on one whistle on the straightaway. To do that, I am going to slow down to 600 rpm at buoy 7 and then slow down to clutch at buoy 8. At buoy 8, I’ll proceed over to the red side of the channel to meet you on one whistle, over.” The pertinent information can be transmitted more concisely as: “This is the tug Bridgett T. I will meet the outbound ship on one whistle. I’ll slow down so that we will meet on the straightaway.” The shorter the better as long as you get your basic point across without leaving something important out or sounding too abrupt. 

CORRECT: It used to be the accepted practice to fib, just a little. Position reports were ahead of where you really were and speeds were on the high side using optimistic calculations. Now with GPS, chart plotters and particularly AIS, this just isn’t necessary. Other vessels are relying on the information you are giving them, especially with regards to your intentions, so keep it as accurate as possible.

COURTESY: When I start a discussion with other professionals about this subject, this aspect of communication always prompts some interesting conversations. There is a lot that can be said about this subject, but the following simple guideline is the most important.

Every VHF Channel 13 radio communication has one very simple objective: a positive outcome. No matter if the person that you are communicating with happens to be an archrival, your best friend or a complete stranger, it still comes down to the fact that what you discuss and decide has to work out right. The very best way to do this is with courteous radio communication. Sarcasm, cynicism, disdain, condescension or contempt are almost always counterproductive. If you want to argue with someone, join a blog, or call them on a cell phone. Radio communication, especially on VHF Channel 13, is a business-only medium.  

Before pushing the Push to Talk button to start communication, take a moment to think through what you are going to say. Does it have a disrespectful tone to it? Could it be taken the wrong way? If you are courteous during your transmission you will prompt a courteous reply and, most important, a good conclusion.

Over the past several years, recreational and other non-required vessels have been encouraged to monitor and answer when called on VHF Channel 13 when navigating in or close to main shipping channels. This has been working out very well and should be encouraged as it has avoided some close-call situations, especially at night and during reduced visibility. This means that there are many more vessels monitoring VHF Channel 13, making good radio etiquette all the more important.

Looking to the future, vessels that will be navigating along our coast and into our ports will be larger with the expansion of the Panama Canal. Navigation into and out of ports will be more complex with wind turbine farms and other structures being placed along our coast and in our bays. Navigational systems will certainly become more sophisticated with more powerful computer systems and advanced electronic aids to navigation. There certainly will be precautionary areas, traffic separation schemes and two-way routes established to assist mariners as they navigate in and out of our ports and along our coast. The navigational systems that professional mariners rely on today weren’t even imagined just a few decades ago. Staying ahead of these changes has and will be a challenge for all mariners. What will remain, however, is that VHF radio communication will be the primary means of Rules of the Road compliance and marine safety and traffic information. 

Discuss good radio procedures and etiquette with other professionals in your groups. Go through this subject with your trainees and be a good example by practicing what you preach. It may be difficult, but if someone is doing something wrong, talk to them about it (but not on VHF Channel 13). If you have an idea of how to make communications better, discuss your ideas with your co-workers or put it out for discussion with the appropriate Harbor Safety Committees. Good radio etiquette has been and will be very important in order to continue and improve this unique and very effective system into the future.


Capt. William Broadley, a retired federal pilot and tanker master, is a marine consultant and expert witness. He is a participant in the Atlantic Coast Port Access Study and is a member of the Mariners’ Advisory Committee for the Bay and River Delaware.

By Professional Mariner Staff