Using Marine VHF Radio: a conversation with Marine Rescue, Sydney


From time to time the club finds it desirable to use VHF radios along the NSW coast to communicate with Marine Rescue authorities. This is most commonly for logging on and off trips, or on a few occasions to inform Marine Rescue of exercises that might otherwise be mistaken for kayakers in distress. Just occasionally we have used them in emergencies.

In the last few years a number of us have found it increasingly difficult to use our handheld VHF marine radios, on Channel 16, for communicating with Marine Rescue South Head. This is despite trying many different sites both within and outside the harbour and within apparent line of sight of the radio tower at South Head. The radios had no trouble communicating sea-to-sea between kayakers over kilometres and received boating transmissions in the region very clearly.

The following is a synopsis of some tests and a couple of question-answer sessions with Frank Haviland of Marine Rescue Sydney. Frank is the ‘MRSS / CompassNet Officer’ at Marine Rescue, Terrey Hills and he has provided some clear and useful comments regarding VHF use around Sydney Harbour.


We approached Marine Rescue Sydney to conduct VHF transmission reception tests within a short distance east of South Head and in line of site of the tower that once supported a Marine Rescue VHF station. We used 5W handheld radios for the test and mobile phones for the occasions when the VHF could not establish a communication link. Marine Rescue Sydney at first could not receive our signal and when they did they rated it 1, 1; that is very weak and almost unreadable. The weakness of the signal compares with a rating of 5, 5 which is the best possible. Several years ago, for similar locations and transceivers, we would routinely be given a 5, 5 rating. Marine Rescue Sydney explained that there were a number of reasons for this.

The Middle Harbour station no longer provides a regular VHF service

The installation of a radar station in the South Head tower has required the removal of the station from its original location in the tower to a temporary location in the car park that is partially screened by foliage

There is increasing communication traffic with marine VHF transmitters capable of 25W

Fewer operators are complying with the standard communication procedures

Following these tests Marine Rescue Sydney and I followed through by email and extracts from the correspondence are copied below. I have shortened and edited my questions for clarity, but have left Frank Haviland’s answers intact:


Does Marine Rescue Sydney still take subscriptions from boaters?

Is there a VHF radio station on North Head?

Could you tell us the location of repeater stations along the Sydney coast?


Dear Mr Osman,

Your inquiry to Marine Rescue Headquarters has been referred to me for reply.

Marine Radio Safety Service

Firstly, your 3 year subscription to our Marine Radio Safety Service is still current – expires 1st July 2013.  Your membership will eventually be merged into the new CompassNet system being developed by Marine Rescue.  This was advertised at the October 2010 Boat Show, but is still “work in progress”.  In the meantime, we continue to provide the service and accept applications for one or three year subscriptions.  Inquiries should be made to me direct by email, mail, or telephone.

VHF Coverage

The Marine Rescue Radio Base at Terrey Hills maintains remote radio stations at North Head (old Artillery school), Miranda (Shopping Centre) and Killcare Heights – all operated from Terrey Hills using the VHF Marine Frequencies. We also have repeater stations on North Head (Ch22 Duplex) and at Killcare Heights (Ch21 Duplex) “owned” by the Broken Bay Game Fishing Club and available to us on non-game fishing competition days.

Other Repeater channels in the greater Sydney area used by us include:-

Channel 82 – South of the harbour – Stanwell park, Wollongong;

Channel 81 – Sydney harbour area;

Channel 80 – Newcastle, Lake Macquarie

I can send you a diagram of all this when I go to the base tomorrow night if you wish – unfortunately I have just moved house and haven’t located my own files yet!

Please let me know if I can assist further in any way,


Frank Haviland

MRSS / CompassNet Officer

Marine Rescue Terrey Hills


That is very helpful and a diagram would be most welcome. Also I would appreciate your advice and comments on the following alternative options if direct VHF transmission with Marine Rescue is failing:


Use a mobile phone. Phones can be awkward to use from a kayak in trouble but it is possible particularly if a rescuing or assisting kayak is making the call. It might pay to buy a phone with a large keypad and screen such as are now available for older people. Would the Marine Rescue be OK with receiving mobile phone calls to log a trip on or off, or in emergencies?

Is it possible, permissible and reasonable to use one of the repeater stations by calling on a channel other than Channel 16 that might prove more accessible near shore?

In a serious emergency the ‘Pan Pan’ call for requesting help, or requesting a relayed message to Marine Rescue for help, might be a preferred option for speed rather than attempting a direct VHF call to Marine Rescue. (Author’s note – it’s customary to wait several minutes to hear a response and with no response this could extend to quite a long period.) Would Marine Rescue feel that was a reasonable option, in an emergency, rather than trying to call Marine Rescue direct?


Hello again Peter,

Attached is a diagram of the NSW coast showing the repeater coverage (Author’s note – see Figure 1)

[Editor’s note: we are currently seeking the weblink for this diagram]

Regarding your Options:-

1. We encourage people to carry mobile phones on their boats and we record the mobile numbers as an alternative means of communication.  We stress, however, that they should not be the primary communication.  In the event of an emergency, all vessels listening to a radio frequency can hear the call and offer assistance; with a telephone, only the person called is aware of the problem.  We often have vessels logging on (and off) by phone.  I actually encourage people to ring us at the base before they leave home and get a weather report.

2. The rule is that duplex* channels should only be used if simplex* channels are not available or not providing adequate signals.  That said, we are happy for you to use any means of contacting us available to you.  At Terrey Hills we monitor the repeater stations as well as the normal marine VHF frequencies; it is best to try and call on Ch16 and then try other channels if you get no response.  By doing this, another vessel or radio base guarding Ch16  may hear you even if we can’t.

3. A vessel in an emergency situation should broadcast a “Pan Pan” message.  If the situation is life threatening – broadcast a “Mayday”.  The idea is to attract the attention of everyone in range to ensure the message is picked up and relayed to the person in the best position to render assistance.  The most important piece of information to give is your position.  If we don’t know where you are, we can’t do much to assist and it may take some hours to get a full search under way.  GPS coordinates are the best; bearings to prominent features are very good (clearly indicate if they are Magnetic or True).  Depth of water if you have a depth sounder is very helpful.

If a search is mounted, it will start from your last known position.  This is why we encourage vessels to give us regular position reports – many day fishermen call us every two hours which greatly narrows down the search area and the time spent getting assistance to the right bit of the ocean.

I hope this has been of some assistance to you.  I would certainly appreciate seeing your article before publication if this is practicable.  Good luck with it!


Frank Haviland

MRSS / CompassNet Officer,

Marine Rescue, Terrey Hills

02 9979 7757


Frank’s advice speaks for itself and I would like to thank him and Marine Rescue both for the service they provide as volunteers and for the specific advice and review they have provided on this occasion. It is greatly appreciated. Thanks also to Andrew Eddy, Dee Ratcliffe and Harry Havu for collaborating in VHF transmission tests over the last year and Rob Mercer for his feedback.

*A simplex channel uses a single channel to transmit and receive and a duplex channel uses separate channels to transmit and receive.