Safety Essentials: How To Use A VHF Marine Radio (Video)

Having the gear is great, but knowing how to properly use it is essential

In this video, American Canoe Association instructor and frequent Kayak Angler contributor Jeff “Birdsnest” Herman shares tips on proper use of a VHF marine radio and the differences in how to call for assistance. As he says, “next to your life vest it’s probably one of the most important pieces of equipment you can have for inshore or offshore kayak fishing.”

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[ See also: How To Self-Rescue In A Fishing Kayak ]

How to Use a VHF Marine Radio to Save Your Life

A VHF marine radio is used by inland and offshore boaters to communicate with other boaters by way of designated recreational channels and—more importantly—to call for help. For less urgent situations, “Channel 9 is simply an all-stations call, all-vessels call within the area,” Herman explains. “Channel 16 is your emergency Coast Guard contact channel.”

Jeff Herman holds up a VHF marine radio while in a kayak
Jeff Herman explains how to properly use a VHF marine radio. | Image: Kayak Angler/YouTube

Channel 16 is the universally designated channel across North America for May Day and Pan-Pan emergency calls. Herman says it’s important to know the difference between the two. “May Day, May Day, May Day” is a call-sign for emergencies that are life-threatening, where consequences considered fatal.

On the other hand, “Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan” is a call-sign to be used in an emergency where assistance is required, though the consequences are not considered fatal; for instance losing your paddle and being swept out to sea. As Herman describes, “I need assistance, I’m having trouble out on the water, can somebody
please help me?”

For the correct protocol to make a Pan-Pan call, first choose Channel 16 and press the side button to talk. Here is Herman’s example:

“Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan. This is blue kayaker, blue kayaker, blue kayaker. I am at San Louis Pass. I have lost my paddle and I’m drifting out to sea. I need assistance with the tow over.”

Proper Pan-Pan Call Protocol

  1. State “Pan-Pan” three times.
  2. Describe your vessel three times.
  3. State your position.
  4. State the nature of your emergency.
  5. Say over.
  6. Wait for a response from the Coast Guard. They might direct you to an additional channel for help.

Non-emergency VHF communication

Wondering where the fish are at? Looking to meet up with your buddies at the launch? “Aside from emergency calls,” says Herman, a VHF marine radio is “a great way to keep in contact with your friends. You can simply move to a recreational channel by moving up or down to…channel 70–71.”

Please note: A radio operators’ license is required by both the FCC in the United States and Transport Canada. For information on licensing requirements for the United States see here and for Canada see here.

This article was first published in the Summer/Fall 2015 issue of Kayak Angler Magazine. Subscribe to Kayak Angler Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.

Jeff Herman explains how to properly use a VHF marine radio. | Feature image: Kayak Angler/YouTube



  1. A license is not required for a VHF radio in the U.S.

    VHF is a marine band and must not be used to transmit from land (with special exceptions such as for a CG Auxiliary Fixed or Mobile land Facility.


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