Do I Need A VHF Radio For Sea Kayaking?

When preparing for a day of kayaking at sea, there are many safety precautions you should take when you’re paddling. Ensuring you have a line of communication with others in your group, as well as having a way to make contact during an emergency, is of prime importance. In this article, we will cover general VHF radio basics.

Keeping a Very High Frequency (VHF) Radio in your safety kit is an easy way to do this.

Benefits of VHF vs Flares

Should an emergency occur while you at sea, you need to know you can get emergency responders to your exact location as quickly as possible. You can use a VHF radio or flares to do this. There are some clear benefits of using VHF radio rather than flares which we will outline below.


Using a smoke flare

Emergency flares must meet certain Coast Guard requirements, including a minimum of three daytime signals and three nighttime signals, or three approved for use at all times. Flares expire after 42 months, at which point you need to restock. You should ensure you have a waterproof canister in which to store the flares before they’re used.

Once you sight a nearby vessel, you can fire a meteor flare to alert them to your distress. Meteor flares burn for 40 seconds, and hopefully, that will be long enough for the vessel to see your distress signal. Handheld signals burn for one to two minutes, so you need to keep enough onboard your kayak to last long enough for a rescue vessel to reach you.

VHF Radio

VHF radio

The US Coast Guard recommends that all boaters carry a VHF radio on board, no matter how small the vessel. There is no expiration on VHF radios, though you should make sure it’s charged or has a full battery before you set out. You won’t need to pack dozens of things into your kayak as there are plenty of small handheld VHF radio models available.

Using line of sight technology, VHF radios have a wide range they can reach with their signal. This is an outright winner in an emergency situation. You don’t need to wait until you can see a vessel to fire a flare, you can start radioing to reach someone.

Do You Need A Radio?

Sup at sea
Do you have somewhere to store your radio on there, buddy?

In short, yes, and if you will be spending any time on the open sea, you certainly need a VHF radio. While at sea, a VHF radio will serve as a far superior communication tool than a cell phone. Mobile phones lose signal and can quickly die, leaving you in a dire situation.

A VHF radio might be a slight burden to care for and keep track of while at sea, but it can bring you weather reports, alert the Coast Guard to your position, and provide alerts regarding the waters you are passing through.

If you paddle in areas where keeping in contact with authority at the port or through a military channel is required, having a VHF radio is a necessity. If you often paddle with groups of inexperienced kayakers, a VHF radio makes a smart choice.

Using A VHF Radio

Once you’ve got the VHF radio basics down, it should be smooth seas… and even if not, you’ve taken care of your safety by keeping your VHF radio on board. Using a VHF radio demands a little concentration, but it’s not rocket science.

Radio Channels

A VHF radio is quite simple to use, especially since you can only find a few channels on it. The most important one found on any VHF radio is channel 16, the international channel. No matter where you are in the world, the local coast guard and all ships will be monitoring channel 16 for distress signals.

The other channels on a VHF radio will vary from location to location, but you should never carry on a casual conversation with someone in your group on channel 16.

Radio Etiquette

Man speaking on a radio
Radio etiquette is more than mere politeness

When using a VHF radio, there’s a protocol to follow, especially if making a distress call. Be mindful of all other channels where you’re located. If a fishing company uses channel 38 to communicate with their vessels, try to avoid that channel. Again, never use channel 16 for non-urgent communications.

When you call another vessel, you must repeat both the name of their boat as well as your own 3 times. For example, “Hawkeye, Hawkeye, Hawkeye, this is Raven, Raven, Raven, over.” It might sound silly, but it is the correct way to address another ship over VHF radio.

Over” is not overused. In fact, it is the necessary ending to every transmission over VHF radio. When you are through speaking, say “over” so the other boat knows you are finished.

morse code chart
hang on, this is Morse, not the NATO alphabet

When spelling things out, be sure to use the phonetic alphabet as this is standardized and should be easily understood. Also, when using numbers, you need to announce single digits so they can be clearly understood. When saying 38, instead of voicing “thirty-eight,” say “three-eight.”

As for emergency calls, use “Mayday” only in cases of life or death. Once the Coast Guard hears that word, they drop everything to find and rescue you.

VHF Radio License

Many countries insist you get a license to use a VHF radio, but the US is not among them. The FCC does not require recreational boaters such as kayakers to have a ship station license in order to operate a VHF radio.

VHF Radio Training

While the US does not require operators to obtain a VHF radio license, it’s still highly recommended that anyone who wants to operate one undergoes some specific VHF radio training.

This training will teach several things to prospective VHF radio operators. Some of these will include:

  • How to keep messages clear and concise
  • To refrain from transmitting unnecessarily over the radio in high boat traffic areas
  • VHF radio etiquette
  • Phonetic alphabet
  • Global Maritime Distress and Safety System
  • Rules about who can and can’t talk over the radio (such as no talking to anyone on shore except licensed shore stations)
  • To refrain from using the channels for unnecessary chatter or to play music
  • Avoid the use of foul language when transmitting
  • How to relay distress and emergency messages
  • Being mindful of the radio so as to not transmit accidentally

Final Word

Hopefully, these VHF radio basics have given you the confidence to get up and running even if you’ve never used one before. Get in touch any time if you need anything clearing up. We’re here to help in any way we can.