Mariners need up-to-date UHF radios and must use them properly

There are certain radio frequencies designated for maritime UHF (ultra high frequency) use, specified in Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations. UHF radio waves essentially travel line of sight, but have the advantage of being able to penetrate metal bulkheads to some extent — allowing mariners to communicate with UHF radios even while inside the vessel’s house or several decks down in the engine room. Maritime companies and vessel operators issue intrinsically safe, hand-held UHF radios to the officers and crewmembers on board their vessels. They’re utilized for drills and during shipboard activities at sea, as well as docking/undocking and cargo operations in port. Without them, we couldn’t do our job.

Bill, the chief mate on a gasoline tanker, was “old school” and I thought then very particular about how his junior mates treated their hand-held UHF radios. Before we started any loading or unloading operation, he would let everyone know just how he thought our UHF radios should be treated. For example, one night in Tampa, Fla., at the Citgo dock, Bill announced loudly, “ABs and mates will each have a radio, making sure that it has a charged battery at the beginning of watch and is always secured in a holster attached to their web belt while on deck.” Having already warned me once for carrying my radio in the pocket of my coveralls, he then looked right at me and said, “If I catch someone not using their holster and belt there is one warning — the second time they will be fired.”

So, that night when coming out on deck from the cargo control room to make a check of the pump room, I realized too late that my holster and web belt were left inside. Taking a chance, I decided that it would be OK to keep the radio in my pocket while making a quick round. As fate would have it, while I was grabbing the ladder handrail, the radio dropped out of my pocket and bounced toward the forward bulkhead, then slid five decks down to the bottom of the pump room. I sullenly descended the ladder, wondering how many pieces my radio was in — and if I should start packing my bags after watch. Instead, Lady Luck was with me. Fortuitously, someone had stuffed some absorbent pads between a pipe and the forward bulkhead, and there the radio sat none the worse for wear.

Since that close call in Tampa, I’ve learned to give my UHF radios the care they deserve — basically by doing what Bill used to tell us. After the implementation of the International Safety Management Code, most companies I sailed for had developed written procedures to ensure their officers and crews received training in the proper use and care of the UHF radios issued to them. As one might expect, good quality UHF marine radios are not cheap, with models ranging in price from around $100 to more than $400. That can add up quickly, considering the five to 30 crewmembers on board a typical commercial vessel. Most companies, however, find that providing quality UHF radios makes good business sense. A friend of mine, a purchasing manager for a large West Coast towing company, once told me he was thinking of ordering a cheaper brand of radio for the boats to save money. His boss told him that was something the company never skimped on. “The money we save won’t be equal to the cost of an accident due to the inability to communicate when needed.”

Anyone who’s been to sea for any length of time knows that working outside in the rain and/or snow is part of the job — and something that can take a toll on UHF radios. During a heavy rainstorm that lasted my entire watch, while finishing a load of unleaded gas at a refinery dock in Ferndale, Wash., my radio just stopped working. Even though it was of good quality, it wasn’t waterproof. As with many things, the features and capabilities of UHF hand-held marine radios have changed over the years. Now there are new generation waterproof models available, equipped with longer-life lithium-ion batteries. Sealed to keep out wetness, they can work for 30 minutes while 3 feet underwater. In my opinion, this is a real advantage. It could allow a crewmember who accidentally fell overboard to call for help on the ship’s UHF channel.

Another UHF radio situation arose one time when I was on a crude oil tanker at San Francisco’s anchorage No. 9. Not far away in a different part of the area was one of our sister ships, owned by the same company. Because we were issued the same make and model of UHF radios on each vessel, crews on both sides could hear and participate in conversations on the other ship. Confusion reigned the first day we were in port, almost costing a third mate his job when he answered the wrong pumpman and closed down a cargo valve during tank cleaning. Recently released high-end hand-held UHF radios are equipped with voice scrambling capability. This allows the conversations on board the vessel to remain private, a capability useful not only to avoid confusion in busy port areas, but also to prevent eavesdropping during shipboard use while underway in high-risk piracy areas. Pirates have been known to use scanners to monitor conversations on board vessels they were attacking; so the new voice-scrambling UHF radios could be considered an anti-piracy/anti-terrorism tool.

The responsibility for hand-held radios on board is a shared one. On the one hand, I have learned that everyone in the crew needs to be fully aware of the importance of UHF radios and trained in their proper use, care and maintenance. On the other hand, I think that it is incumbent upon the vessel operator to provide top-quality, up-to-date UHF radios, battery chargers and belts/holsters for every mariner on board. At any given moment a crewmember’s radio call could help save lives, prevent an oil spill or keep the ship safe in a dangerous situation. If that time comes, it only makes sense to have the best possible UHF radio to help put the odds for success as much in our favor as possible.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin’.

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff