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Using a Hand Held VHF Radio for Sea Kayaking

By Dave Brown

The hand-held VHF radio is a helpful peace of mind piece of kit for Sea kayaking around the UK. Often seen by many a paddler as a daunting item or the realm of salty old sea dogs, they are now becoming more accessible and easier to use. When we run Sea courses here, we as standard operating practice, carry a VHF. It allows us to check in for weather updates and local information, it provides us with a means of emergency communication, global telephone communications via Ship to shore should we require it, but also if we have a bigger team on the water it allows the leaders to stay in contact.
The VHF system isn't there for us to use as a way of chatting to our mates on the water, much like you would on a mobile phone. It is meant as a means of seeking and providing information for those on or in the water and for the rescue services to have a means of communicating and coordinating dealings with emergencies.
Top range VHF radios can be waterproof, rugged, have a long battery life and are easy to use. The primary operation is straightforward. Push a couple of buttons and knowing the VHF radio operator's protocol.

Buy The Best You Can Afford

Using a Hand Held VHF Radio for Sea Kayaking

Your decisions should be based on a few key things though, make sure it's waterproof, compact and manufactured by a reliable company with a good history. Ask others what brand they use.

Use Multiple Radios in a Group

For lengthy kayak expeditions, multi-day tours etc the ability to stay in touch within the group is not to be over-rated.
Having a second radio also means you've got a spare in case one goes down.


Using a Hand Held VHF Radio for Sea Kayaking

Channel 16, of course, is the Coast Guard emergency contact station, the distress channel and is monitored by the majority of sea going folk.
It can also be used to initiate communications with another VHF user. Protocol implies then that when they respond, move to another suggested "working" channel.
The RYA and the Coast Guard have information and books about VHF operator's licenses.


VHF radios have a squelch button or knob that allows you to save power and eliminate white noise. In a nutshell it cuts reception until a clear signal has been detected. Turn the dial until the annoying interference dissapears.


Power modes if available on your handset are useful in maintaining precious battery life.
The greater the distance to transmit the greater the power required. Therefore, More watts uses more power means less time.
Keep your transmissions to a minimum, unless you have some means of replenishing power. We took an Icom M-IV out for nearly a month and used it fairly often in both broadcast and listening modes. One spare battery was all that was required and I didn't have to snap it in until week three.
VHF radios with AA battery compartments mean you can more easily carry back up power.
You can also disconnect the batteries when the radio isn't being used for while.

VHF Speak

Using a Hand Held VHF Radio for Sea Kayaking

If you are in need of emergency help repeat May-Day three times on channel 16.
Stay on the line to answer important questions from the Coast Guard when they answer.
If your need is strong but not a life or death situation, repeat Pan-Pan three times.
Whichever, be prepared to describe your situation, position, description and location of your group. Do this calmly so as to communicate clearly. If you need to communicate something with other ships, say you're about to cross a channel in fog and want to give the captains a quick heads up, repeat Securité three times, then announce your intentions and wait for a response...that's pronounced Su-cure-uh-tay.

Keep It On Your Person

In the worst case you could find yourself separated from your boat; if that should happen when you're miles from anywhere, you need to summon assistance.
If your VHF is compact and waterproof, it will encourage you to keep it at hand.
I tuck mine into my buoyancy aid and use the lanyard clipped back on itself around a shoulder strap, with a little stainless steel krab. This keeps it free from my paddling movements.
For added security a waterproof bag is a good idea when you're on the water. These are readily available from outdoor shops or chandlers.


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