Why do we need VHF?

Larger vessels than ever before are now using our freight waterways, many of which are tidal with strong currents, and one of the reasons that they are able to do this safely is the ability of skippers and pilots to communicate by radio with other vessels and with port operators and navigation authorities.  By using the radio boaters can build up a picture of the positions of other large vessels and meetings at difficult places can be avoided, locks can be made ready before arrival, nearby vessels can be warned in advance of impending manoeuvres and so on.

Although your small pleasure vessel on the lower Trent, for example, may have plenty of room to keep out of the way, whereas a 3000 tonne ship is fairly constrained in its movements, this does not mean that small vessels do not need radio.  Provision of marine-band VHF radio is a major benefit for various reasons, which all have safety implications.

  • In an emergency, as well as being able to call the nearest lock keeper, port control or coastguard (depending where you are), marine-band VHF also gives you the best chance of attracting help from a nearby vessel.  Another vessel will often be able to reach you before the emergency services do.

  • Because radio is now virtually universal among commercial vessels on the larger freight waterways, there is a tendency to rely on it as a means of ascertaining the locations of other vessels.  If they hear you on the radio, they will know where you are likely to be and can call you to warn of their approach, if necessary (provided you are listening on the right channel!).

  • By keeping a listening watch on the correct channel, you will build up a picture of other traffic and this may enable you to avoid meeting a large vessel at an awkward passing point, for example.

  • You will be able to call for locks and bridges to be prepared before you arrive.  This is particularly important on fast-flowing tidal waterways, where waiting outside locks may be hazardous and best avoided if possible and where you really need to know well in advance if you are going to have to wait for a bridge to be swung.  Most leisure craft horns are not up to the job of getting the attention of a bridge keeper from say 500m away - a suitable horn will cost as much as a marine-band VHF radio set anyway.  As an example, many inland craft would be in serious trouble heading through Selby with a good tide behind them, if they had to get near enough to the railway swing bridge to attract attention using their horn and then had to try to hold back to wait for a train to pass!

  • In some busy areas, the availability of marine-band VHF radio has allowed establishment of Vessel Traffic Services (VTS), allowing monitoring and control of vessels, to improve safety (in the same way as air traffic control regulates aircraft movements at an airport).

  • If cruising in company, you will be able to stay in touch with your companion vessel(s) for safety and planning purposes (but not idle chat, which is not allowed on the public channels).

Comparisons are sometimes made with the days before VHF radio, when everyone seemed to manage without frequent disasters, simply by keeping a good look-out.  That may be true, but freight traffic tended to be regular, vessels were smaller and most freight operators knew who else was working on the waterway, their traffics and how they worked with the tides.  It is only recently that large numbers of pleasure craft have been using many of these waterways, often moving at times and on routes that are not traditional and sometimes skippered by boaters who are not fully familiar with the waterway or with traditional means of communication such as sound signals or flags.  All these factors conspire to produce a situation where VHF Radio on pleasure craft unquestionably leads to an improvement in safety, if used correctly, although it does NOT excuse you from keeping a good look-out as well!

Mobile phones do not provide the facility to communicate generally with other vessels and citizens’ band (CB) radio gives you no guarantee that anyone is listening.  For these reasons, although a valuable additional means of communication, they are NOT a satisfactory alternative to marine-band VHF radio, although they may provide valuable additional means of communication.

For these reasons, IWA strongly recommends that all pleasure craft using larger waterways in active use by freight carrying vessels, or any tidal waterway1, should carry marine-band VHF radio and have someone on board who is qualified and able to use it correctly.

In an organised convoy, it may be sufficient in some cases for one or two craft to carry radio, provided that vessels all keep in close contact by other means.
In many cases, the navigation authority requires craft to carry radio and to maintain a listening watch.  For example, in the Port of London Authority area marine band VHF radio is mandatory on any craft over 13.7m (45ft) length (with a special exemption for narrow canal craft travelling between Teddington and Brentford, subject to reporting by phone).  VHF is also obligatory for all powered vessels on the Humber, the Trent seaward of Gainsborough, the Yorkshire Ouse seaward of Hook Railway Bridge and a number of other tidal waterways which form vital links in the connected inland waterway system.  A summary of legal requirements for pleasure craft using such links is provided in Appendix A.