Are you VHF ready?

VHF marine radios save lives.

There is good VHF radio coverage in the coastal waters of New Zealand.

You're in trouble. You're in the sea. You're floating and you're OK, but you still need rescuing. Luckily, you've got your VHF radio. With a click of a button you make a mayday call. You continue, "Five nautical miles west of Slipper Island. Boat capsized. Over."

VHF radios are designed to get you help when things are going wrong. That's why you need to get a radio. Take a short online course and increase your chances. Maritime NZ monitors channel 16 and responds to tell you that they've "Received MAYDAY." It's going to be OK.

Cellphones are fair-weather friends

Many boaties think that they're fine with just a cellphone. Cellphones are great for checking the weather, callings friends and using marine apps. But cellphones generally cannot provide ship to ship safety communications or communications with rescue vessels.

If you make a distress call on a cell phone, only the person you call will be able to hear you. We also know that locating a cellphone caller can be difficult. If you don't know precisely where you are, the Coastguard or other rescuer will have difficulty finding your location on the water.

Use your VHF radio first

With a VHF radio, calls can be received by Maritime NZ, the Coastguard and by vessels which may be in position to give immediate assistance. A VHF marine radio also helps ensure that storm warnings and other urgent marine information broadcasts are received.

There is good VHF radio coverage in the coastal waters of New Zealand.

Off coastal water, a VHF radio should be your first communication in an emergency. With a few exceptions, even a portable VHF radio can give you up to 50kms of coverage. Even better, on channel 16, a trained operator will take your emergency call within a minute and begin co-ordinating your rescue.

A distress beacon will also greatly increase your chances of rescue.

Channel 16 in an emergency

Channel 16 is known as the distress channel. Be aware though that a VHF has a range limit and is subject to shadows in difficult terrains like Fiordland.

Four simple steps

Follow these four simple steps to make sure that your VHF radio is ready in an emergency.

  1. Get the right VHF radio for you

    The best advice is for skippers to always have a handheld, waterproof VHF radio on their person, preferably attached to their life jacket. A fixed VHF radio has a greater range and is better for regular communication, but you will not be able to access it if it's water damaged in a capsize. Carry both a handheld and a fitted VHF radio on your vessel.
  2. Take a course

    Knowing how to use a marine VHF radio correctly and with confidence is vital in the event of an emergency. To operate a maritime VHF radio you are required to hold a VHF radio opertor Certificate, unless you are transmitting in an emergency or in distress. Courses are only a few hours long and give you the confidence of knowing how to use a VHF radio in an emergency.

    Online courses only cost $85 and are available at CoastGuard Boating Education.
  3. Get a call sign

    A call sign for your boat is the best way of making sure each radio transmission is individually identifiable.

    It is registered on a national search and rescue database. This means that search and rescue authorities can access information about your vessel to help locate you faster in an emergency.

    Call signs only cost $45 and are available at Coastguard Boating Education or the Ministry of Businesss Innovation and Employment.
  4. Know where you are

    VHF radios have excellent coverage in most coastal regions. Many inland waterways are less reliable. Before going boating ask a local boatie or Coastguard, they will know where there is no or little VHF coverage. Also check the VHF coverage map.

    View coverage map

    If the area you're boating in doesn't have good coverage, make sure you have an EPIRB (a distress beacon for boats), or a waterproof PLB (personal locator beacon) and a cellphone. In fact, it's always a good idea to have a beacon anyway.

Click here for more information on marine communications.

Related information:
Get a quick visual guide for your vessel.

VHF channels

This sticker lists the major VHF channels.

[PDF: 110KB, 1 page]

Get a quick guide for MAYDAY calling.

Radio distress calling

This sticker outlines the radio procedure for distress calls.

[PDF: 30KB, 1 page]