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Expert’s guide to vessel communications

I have spent my lifetime on the water in various capacities. I operate a specialist marine loss adjusting business in New Zealand called Field Assessors and have been in the marine industry for over 20 years. Together with my small team of passionate qualified mariners, I regularly survey all types of vessels, inspecting damage, and coordinating associated repairs. I am also a father, husband, commercially qualified skipper, Rescue Vessel Senior Master with Coastguard New Zealand, and an active recreational boatie. In this capacity, I am incredibly grateful to be able to share some of my experience with Nautilus Marine Magazine readers.

For this issue, I would like to focus on vessel communications as a safety matter. Naturally, there are some differences between vessel communications between New Zealand and Australia, specifically, in terms of VHF Radio channel use and perhaps minor variations in protocols.

However, I hope this column provides you some food for thought about the importance of vessel communications. Considering and applying these principles to your local boating environment will help to ensure you return home safely after every boating adventure. Fully operational and effective communication equipment is a must on board every vessel. Knowing you have the right communications equipment will enhance your enjoyment of boating with family by providing you with the reassurance that should an unforeseen event occur, you know you will be able to quickly contact other vessels, rescue agencies and/or shore bases for assistance. Here in New Zealand, we continue to emphasise the message of having at least two forms of communication on board. These days, most of us carry a mobile phone. While this is the norm for most of our day-to-day interactions with friends and family, when out on the water, the technology for “vessel to vessel” and “vessel to shore” contact needs to be tailored for the environment in which they are operating. I’m referring to factors such as salt air and spray, wind, and remote location use. If you wish to use your mobile phone as a means of communication, then give some thought to how effective the phone would be should a worst-case scenario occur during your outing. Plan for the worst. What would happen if you ended up in the water? Would the phone still be able to operate? Is there mobile coverage where you are boating? It might seem a little obvious but also consider phone battery life duration. Always start any boating outing with your mobile fully charged and consider if there is a way to charge your phone on board.

Report your trip

In New Zealand, the Coastguard runs an app which allows trip reports to be registered via your mobile phone. Otherwise, an alternative option is to place a VHF radio trip report with local agencies to let them know where you are going. If external parties know the area you are operating in, and you don’t safely return by an expected time, rescue agencies will have a better starting point to come and find you, increasing your chance of rescue, and in some cases, survival. VHF radios which are specifically designed for maritime use are built to withstand the rigours of on water activity. They come in a wide variety of both standalone options along with fully integrated communication systems that can be synched with on board navigation systems. I recommend chatting with your local service agents and marine retailers to discuss the best options and configuration for your craft type and vessel use. You may even be surprised how affordable some of this essential safety equipment has become.

Having a base set VHF radio on board and a back-up waterproof handheld VHF radio is a great communications arrangement. Two forms of communication provide boaties with reassurance, whatever the emergency. Consider the positioning of the radios in your boat and whether they would be readily accessible in the event of an emergency. There are also a few “vessel to vessel” channels designated for contacting friends on other vessels while on the water.

Operating a VHF radio in New Zealand requires a licence and part of the licensing process includes completing an education course. This provides operators with details around the correct use of different radio channels, radio operations, and how to ask for assistance in an emergency. Similar courses are available in Australia – it’s worth investigating what is available in your local area. Maybe consider who you boat most frequently with and get the group together to do a course.

Practice and prepare

It’s a good idea to keep a radio ‘cheat sheet’ on board your vessel. In New Zealand, an adhesive label is available with the correct terms and language to use when making a distress call. Talk with local agencies around requirements for VHF call sign registration and be sure to share the knowledge of how to operate your radio with your regular crew and any friends/ family joining you for a day on the water. Consider what would happen if the skipper had an incident and was incapacitated. Would passengers on board know how to contact rescue agencies for assistance? Remember that some emergencies are time critical; in cases such as stroke, heart attacks, seizures and poisonings, every minute counts.

Not every outing goes as planned and anyone who has spent time on the water understands there are so many variables associated with boating. Even the most highly maintained craft can experience failures. Some of the most experienced skippers can find themselves in difficulty, sometimes through absolutely no fault of their own. The key is to be prepared, by having the right equipment on board your vessel and training for its correct use.

I’d encourage you to take some time to review your own vessel configurations, discuss the many different options available with your local service agents and suppliers and ensure you know and understand how to operate your equipment. Remember, in an emergency, stress can often lead to panic. Regular review of radio protocols and refreshers on what calls to make are vital to ensure that if you ever need to make a distress call, it will be second nature. Boating can be such a fun pastime when done in a carefully prepared manner. Good vessel communication equipment and practices will ensure you enjoy the water and stay safe while boating.

Check out the February-March issue of Nautilus Marine Magazine for more expert advice.