VHF radio: Qualify and benefit
  |  First Published: February 2005

Although boaties are relying on mobile phone technology for boat-to-boat and ship-to-shore communication, it’s the marine radio frequencies that are monitored by our coast watch authorities.

They can respond much quicker in an emergency to a radio broadcast than a mobile phone distress call. Marine radio communications provide persons at sea in small vessels a variety of services including vital weather and navigational information, telephone calls to and from subscribers ashore when out of mobile phone range and many other services important to seafarers. However, there can be no better reason for fitting a marine radio than its potential to save lives.

Marine CB (27MHz) is the most popular two-way radio most boat owners have fitted and use. The 27MHz band has the main frequencies used by recreational boaters and the volunteer services because of its low cost (around $200) and its suitability for use in enclosed waters where the majority of recreational boaters operate. This radio provides a range of 10 to 15 nautical miles and is usually limited to line of sight.

27 MHz radios allow ship-to-ship communication between other users and ship-to-shore communication with the volunteer services. These radios are capable of transmitting distress alerts, receiving weather forecasts and marine safety information provided that the vessel is operating within the coverage area and times of the volunteer services.

There is no qualification required by law to own and operate a marine CB. However, there is a growing trend to get away from the incessant chatter of 27MHz and go to a frequency that is much clearer and which attracts subscribers who are more likely to observe proper radio procedures.


This is where VHF has filled the bill and a number of boat/motor/trailer packages are now being sold with VHF radios included. VHF radios have a better range and clarity than 27MHz but are more expensive (around $300 to $400).

The Uniform Shipping Laws (USL) Code states that effective VHF coverage extends to only 20 nautical miles from a shore station but may be as far as 30 nautical miles under some circumstances.

VHF allows ship-to-ship communication and ship-to-shore contact with volunteer services. This radio is capable of transmitting distress alerts, receiving weather forecasts and marine safety information.

Be aware, however, that you must be certified to transmit on a VHF two-way radio. A minimum qualification is a MROVCP (Marine Radio Operator’s VHF Certificate of Proficiency). Penalties for use of VHF apparatus without a certificate are very severe, with up to two years’ jail and/or a fine of $165,000.

Compliance officers from the Australian Communications Authority are now looking at unlicensed offenders who broadcast using marine VHF. This is due to a few hoons abusing call channels and not adhering to correct radio procedure.

A candidate for the Marine Radio Operator’s VHF Certificate of Proficiency will be required to:

• Demonstrate a practical knowledge of GMDSS (General Operators Certificate of Proficiency sub-systems and equipment) which is appropriate to vessels operating in Australian waters on which a radio installation is not compulsory under international agreements, Specifically, VHF radiotelephony equipment with digital selective calling (DSC) facilities and emergency position indicating radio beacons of the 406 MHz and 121.5/243 type.

• Demonstrate an ability to use VHF radiotelephony and digital selective calling (DSC) operating procedures, particularly those relating to distress, urgency and safety.

• Demonstrate an understanding of simple maintenance practices required to keep marine radio equipment in good working order, including the repair of minor faults.

• Demonstrate an understanding of the regulations applicable to ship stations equipped with VHF and DSC facilities.

• Demonstrate a basic knowledge of the Australian marine search and rescue system.

I recommend even users of marine CB to attend a course and obtain a basic certificate of proficiency so they may learn proper radio procedures if they face an emergency or act as a relay in an incident or emergency.

Clicking on the website of the Australian Maritime College in Launceston (http://www.amc.edu.au) will guide you to an organisation close to you which will enable you to sit a course, go through revision and then take the exam. The phone number for the Maritime College is 1300 365 262.

Should you choose to study independently for your certificate, I recommend you obtain a current edition of the Marine Radio Operators Handbook from the college for $27.95 plus $6 postage and handling. The handbook is a comprehensive guide to marine communications equipment and operating procedures. It includes information about distress and safety communications, digital selective calling, search and rescue, coast stations, care and maintenance of equipment, travelling overseas and much more. The handbook also provides the syllabus for the MROCP (Basic Certificate), MROVCP and Satellite Endorsement examinations.


The Marine Radio Operators Handbook is essential reading for every boat owner in Australia. It is highly recommended that a copy of the handbook be carried on board all vessels, large and small.  The exam questions are based on this handbook. Icons throughout the book indicate the areas to study for each qualification.

Once you have studied the handbook and feel that you are ready to be examined, you must contact an invigilator in your area and arrange a suitable time, date and place to sit the examination Volunteers groups such as Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol and the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard, conduct regular radio courses followed by an exam to gain the certificate.

Up to eighteen months ago, it was illegal to even have a VHF set in the boat with the transmitter connected unless a certificate of proficiency or a station licence was produced. However, all VHF radio sets now fall under a class licence and an individual station licence is no longer required. That means if you have a VHF set in the boat, you can listen to what’s going on to your heart’s content, but you are not authorised to transmit without a minimum MROVCP.

“Radios are an important means of attracting attention in an emergency or helping someone else who is in trouble,” ACA acting chairman Dr Bob Horton said.

“Australia’s small boat owners are warned by the ACA that they must hold a certificate of proficiency if they are using a VHF marine radio. While it is not mandatory for 27MHz marine radios, the ACA also calls on small boat owners using 27MHz marine radios to consider obtaining a certificate of proficiency.

“The potential to save lives is the most important reason for fitting marine radios. But they must be used properly and responsibly. When you hear an emergency call, you must know how to respond. When you make one, it is equally important that your message is understood and others know how to respond.”

Dr Horton said the ACA had issued the warning because of persistent reports that recreational boat owners had become careless and did not comply with responsible radio operating practices, including those that apply to distress frequencies. Delinquent radio behaviour on Australian waterways was on the rise and the number of people sitting for marine radio examinations had fallen significantly.

Small boat owners using VHF marine radios must hold at least a Marine Radio Operator’s VHF Certificate of Proficiency. Holding a certificate is a condition of the class licence that authorises the operation of these types of marine radios.

ACA figures show that the number of people sitting for marine radio examinations to obtain a certificate of proficiency has fallen by more than 1300 between 2001-02 and 2002-03.

Dr Horton said that misusing marine radio equipment was an offence under the Radiocommunications Act. Penalties for operating a VHF radio without a certificate include fines of up to $165,000 and even jail. The position for operators of 27MHz marine radios was different because it was not a requirement of the class licence for the operators of these radios to hold a certificate of proficiency.

“However, we recommend that they do hold one so they know how to competently use their radios in an emergency,” he said.

Operators of marine radios at maritime coast stations were also required to hold a relevant Australian Marine Radio Operator’s Certificate of Proficiency or an equivalent overseas qualification.

“If you operate another type of marine radio apart from a 27MHz or VHF radio, you must not only hold a Marine Radio Operator’s Certificate of Proficiency but you must also have an individual licence for the apparatus,” Dr Horton said.

Get licensed, be alert and stay alive.

(• The author thanks John Dusting from Navman Australia and the ACA, AMSA and the Marine College in Tasmania for quotes and assistance in preparing this article.)

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