NSW Sea Kayak Club – VHF radio course [73]

By Michael Steinfeld MROVCP

While paddling in the Whitsundays recently, our pod came upon an English kayaker who had just been rescued after his kayak started to sink in the middle of a crossing near the Goldsmith group of islands. He was lucky to be alive and told us that when he purchased his kayak he was advised to buy two items of safety equipment: a VHF (very high frequency) radio and a set of pencil flares.

When his kayak started to fill with water in the middle of a crossing he sent a mayday message which was received by the local authorities who relayed it to another yacht in the vicinity. He let off a pencil flare to alert the yacht.

Not so lucky was our esteemed Andrew McAuley who used his VHF radio to make a mayday call. His signal was weak, being 60 nm away from the NZ coast, and his message garbled. His call sign was not registered, causing delay in organising a rescue. See my recent magazine article (Issue 70, March 2008).

When embarking on extended trips, a VHF radio is a necessary communication device. A basic model costs about $150. Expect to pay up to $600 if they are waterproof, float and have a longer battery life. VHF radios are now being manufactured with inbuilt GPS devices and digital selective calling, which is a button that when pressed sends out a distress message with your identification and GPS coordinates.

You can use a VHF to log in and out with the maritime authorities, obtain weather reports on trips and communicate with other VHF users in range. The downside is that its range is limited from 5 nm between two kayaks at sea to 40 nm if the signal can find a relay station on land. The radio signal travels in straight lines so it may not transmit when blocked by headlands, cliffs etc.

To use a VHF radio you must hold a Marine Radio Operators VHF Certificate of Proficiency (MROVCP) issued by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. To hold that licence you have to pass an exam. The licence is valid on vessels other than kayaks and in other countries.

In October 2008, a dozen club members attended the Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol Sydney headquarters at the Spit for approximately five hours of tuition (which cost $130).

As VHF radios are operated by mariners around the globe, a set of protocols must be used if you want to ensure that any communication you have with another vessel or station is properly conveyed and understood. Each VHF operator has their own call sign. You can make one up and if you join the Volunteer Coastal Patrol they give you one, which is registered in their system. We were required to study everything contained in the manual (included in the course fee) even though it is not directly relevant to the type of VHF radios kayakers carry and the situations we paddle in.

The key calling signs are: Mayday, Pan Pan and Sécurité.

The highest priority alert is Mayday called three times and used when there is imminent danger to a vessel or person.

Pan Pan called three times is the next level down in priority and is used when there is a need to convey an urgent message concerning the safety of the vessel or person.

Sécurité (pronounced SAY-CURE-E-TAY) called three times means that an important broadcast is about to be transmitted about a navigational or weather warning.

VHF radios have a number of channels; the main calling channels are 16 and 67. There are a number of working channels where you can conduct a conversation with another VHF operator or land station. You also must learn the international phonetic alphabet, that is Alpha, Bravo, Charlie etc

After instruction we had to sit for a test, which was very difficult to fail primarily because we had been coached on the answers. The course was not specifically directed at kayakers; some items such as the maintenance of lead acid batteries were of little use (as the batteries we buy are sealed).

Members would have liked to practise the skills learnt using their radios and the course could have been shortened, but overall it was worthwhile.

Club members can join the Voluntary Coastal Patrol at a discount rate of $22 per member via an application form. See the November 2008 newsletter. The VCP is an organisation that NSWSKC should support; after all it is usually one of the first boats to turn up in a rescue situation. The club is organising a ‘rescue day’ to share tips and techniques with the help and support of the VCP.

Thanks to Lee Killingworth and John Piotrowski for organising the course and to John and Julia Woudstra from the VCP.