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.
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.