Paddling with marine VHF

Jim Greenhalgh


“Paddlers do not think of themselves as boaters.”

– A Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats by the U.S. Coast Guard

Because they don’t consider themselves boaters, few paddlers, rowers, and other human-powered vessel operators take boating safety courses. What’s more, most paddle sports training focuses on skills, not on the knowledge required to be a safe boater.

A lack of knowledge regarding boating rules and regulations, safety equipment, and navigation has led to serious accidents over the years. In 2016 a high-speed ferry collided with a group of kayakers on New York’s Hudson River, seriously injuring several kayakers.

As with any maritime collision, both parties—the kayakers and the ferry captain—received citations for navigation rule violations. This collision had nothing to do with the paddlers’ skills but everything to do with their knowledge and application of the rules. In the six years since this collision, little has changed.

With more boaters on the water, paddlers and human-powered boaters need boating safety education more than ever. Geared toward boaters of kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards and other human-powered vessels, this new column attempts to bridge this knowledge gap.

In each issue, I’ll cover subjects such as rules and regulations, navigation, safety equipment, rescues, cold water and adverse weather paddling, and more. Occasionally, I’ll review paddle craft accidents to see what lessons we can learn. I also welcome your questions and comments.

I hope that other paddlers in America’s Boating Club will join the effort to provide much-needed boating safety education to our fellow boaters in the paddling community.

The U.S. Coast Guard recommends that all mariners carry a marine VHF. Fortunately, more paddlers have started using this vital safety device. Today, you have your choice of affordable, lightweight, buoyant, and waterproof handheld marine VHF radios on the market. All mariners should learn the rules and procedures for marine VHF radio operation before using one on the water.

Recently, a group of four experienced sea kayakers practicing in rough water off the coast of Maine were carrying marine VHF radios and communicating with each other on an approved working channel. However, they weren’t monitoring Channel 16 as required by law. Someone on the beach saw the kayakers paddling in rough seas and assumed they were in trouble. The person called emergency services, and the Coast Guard dispatched a medium rigid inflatable boat with an entire crew to the reported location. Upon arrival, they found that the four kayakers did not require assistance.

While paddlecraft aren’t required to carry a marine VHF, Title 47 CFR 80.310 requires all voluntary vessels carrying a marine VHF to maintain a watch on Channel 16 when underway. Typically, a vessel operator will monitor and call on Channel 16 and switch to a working channel for conversations. Often a group of boaters will operate together on a working channel and stay off 16. So how does a group comply with the law and still maintain safety? With a simple click of the “dual watch” key, the radio does everything for you.

Paddlers often operate in groups for safety, so the typical scenario using marine VHF is to designate one of the working channels for group use before departure.

The dual watch key may look different on various makes and models; however, it’s usually labeled “Dual” or “D/W.” After enabling D/W, boaters can operate on a working channel while the radio automatically monitors Channel 16. The boaters will hear radio traffic on 16 and respond if needed.

When the Coast Guard receives a distress call, it immediately broadcasts an alert on Channel 16. If the kayakers mentioned earlier had used proper radio procedure, they would have heard the alert and realized they were the subjects of the distress call. They could have responded directly to the Coast Guard via radio and prevented a costly and time-consuming search-and-rescue mission.

Paddlers often operate in groups for safety, so the typical scenario using marine VHF is to designate one of the working channels for group use before departure. Paddlers and other recreational boaters in the U.S. may use channels 68, 69, 71, 72 or 78A. After selecting the working channel, operators click on the Dual Watch key.

Smart paddlers always wear their life jackets and usually mount the radio on the front near their heads. With a lot of hand and paddle action in this area, it’s easy to hit the radio keyboard and change the channel accidentally. For that reason, paddlers should use the keyboard lock key. If you need to respond to traffic on 16 or make a distress call while underway, you click off the lock, click on Channel 16 and broadcast.

Take the online seminar, All About Marine Radio, to learn more, and download Navigation Rules for Paddlecraft, a must-read for all paddlers.

Jim Greenhalgh

Jim Greenhalgh of St. Petersburg Sail & Power Squadron/22 is a senior navigator, vessel examiner and instructor, having taught boating safety and navigation since 1991. He draws on his vast sail and power boating experience as a lifelong boater and avid sea kayaker. Jim leads trips for the Kayak Adventure Group, a sea kayaking club based on Florida’s west coast that he co-founded. He also wrote Navigation Rules for Paddlecraft, a must-read for all paddlers.

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