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Author Topic:   Marine VHF Radio Procedures/Licensing
jimh posted 04-30-2001 10:55 AM ET (US)   Profile for jimh   Send Email to jimh  
For most boaters, a shipboard marine radio no longer requires a license, unless you "visit foreign ports."

Of course, in the Detroit area, a foreign port is just a few hundred yards across the Detroit or St. Clair rivers.

In these cases you are supposed to have a marine station license and operators license, too. However, I think this is one of those regulations observed more in the breach than in the adherence. The fees used to be modest, $5 or so, then some sweeping reform ("can't charge for manditory regulation") caused them to be abolished entirely, then a new reform ("recover costs from users of government services") jumped the fees so high that many people don't bother. Spending $75 for the formality of registering a name and number on a poorly printed piece of paper does not seem like much of a service.

There is a concise summary of the rules at

Callsigns for any radio station are issued by the governing authority for that country (in the U.S. it is the FCC) according to blocks of callsigns allocated by international agreement.

The U.S. has callsigns blocks begining with letters A,K,N, and W.

Canada has C and V.

Different formats for callsigns are used in different radio services. In broadcasting, an all-letter format is used, once three letters then later four. Stations west of the Mississippi use "K" as the first letter; stations east of the Mississippi use "W".
"KDKA" in Pittsburgh is an acception. Old time stations like WGN or WJR retain their three letter calls.

Typically marine shipboard stations are issued callsigns from a block like WAA0001 thru WZZ9999.

In the past the FCC used to suggest using the registration number of the boat pre-fixed with letter "K" as a temporary callsign until you received an assigned one. You filled out the application, mailed in your fees, and could begin using the marine radio with this temporary callsign. You might do that still if you need a callsign in a pinch. If your boat is registered MC-3191-BG, your "instant" callsign would be "KMC-3191-BG".

There were formal regulations requiring the use of callsign identification of the station on all transmissions, but these seemed to have been relaxed in as much as most recreational boaters do not have assigned callsigns anymore.

As someone suggested, often a description of your boat is more informative. One time we were making a crossing of Lake Huron from Manitoulin south to what we hoped would be Presque Isle ("almost island" in French), Michigan. The boat had no LORAN, this was years before GPS, and we had been sailing for about eight hours, plotting just with compass course and speed to deduce our position.

We met a freighter coming down the lake and I wanted to check our position with him, so I called him on the radio (Ch-16). I could not make out his name so I called like this:

"Downbound Lake Huron freighter east of Rogers City, this is the sailboat off your port bow calling on channel 16."

The freighter ARMCO came right back to me and we switched to channel 13 ("bridge to bridge") for communications. The freighters often use 13 to arrange passings or meets in restricted waters. The Mate gave me the current LORAN position of his boat, and it confirmed our position fairly closely.

Marine radios are "channelized" into a couple of dozen channels, but there are restrictions on what channel to use for what purpose.

The channels are also configured differently in the set-up of the radio. Some channels are "simplex" channels; you receive and transmit on the same frequency.

Other channels are "half-duplex." These channels split the receive and transmit into separate frequencies and are intended to allow communication with "public correspondence" shore stations. The shore station has the ability to simultaneously send and receive, and he listens on the frequency that the vessel transmits, and also transmits on the frequency that the vessel is listening on. In this way it is possible to interconnect the shore station with a telephone, and thus connect the vessel to a telephone caller.

On "half-duplex" channels you cannot communication with another vessel directly, since you are both listening to a different freqeuncy than the one you are both transmitting on.

Although it is technically forbidden, I know many people "read the mail" on half-duplex channels, but often you can only hear the shore-side end of the conversation clearly. You may be able to hear the other vessel if the telephone hybrid is not well balanced and some of his audio leaks back.

And speaking of "reading the mail" I think this is a pretty common practice among boaters who are out cruising. The marine radio becomes a bit of entertainment and people often eavesdrop on other conversations. So I would suggest you don't want to get too personal on the VHF Marine radio; there are probably a dozen other boaters listening.

Prior to the development of cellular telephones, use of "public correspondence" stations was the common way of making a telephone call (or receiving one) from a vessel.

We made a couple of old-fashioned calls via marine radio telephone back in the 1980's while cruising in the North Channel. It was rather fun, and worth the $10-12 that the call cost. But those were the good old days of marine radio telephone. I wouldn't make a call today unless my life depended on it!

We also used to tell people that if they had to get in touch with us, they could call the marine operator and try to contact us around 10:00 a.m. We would generally have our radio on at that time. The procedure would be for them to dial the AT&T operator, ask for the Marine Operator for the area [Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan], give the Marine Operator the vessels name and callsign, and ask them to try to raise the vessel.

With the deregulation of the telephone business, I have some reservations whether you could still do this these days. You can barely get an Operator, let alone one who could connect you with the proper Marine Operator.

Like the licensing fees, the rates for telephone service from public correspondence stations have gone astronomically high. I think the last rate I heard was something like $16/minute, and that was five years ago! Clearly, you want a cell fone these days if you are going to be making a call from a boat.


lhg posted 04-30-2001 03:36 PM ET (US)     Profile for lhg    
Jim - thanks as usual for the informative report. Am I correct that we still don't need a radio license if only in the US, but do (need a US license) if we're going to be boating in Canada?

Incidentally, what are you doing sitting at a computer on a Sunday morning at 11am. By that time, I already had four 3 lb silver salmon, and one 5 lb Atlantic, flopping around on the floor of my boat.

Tsuriki BW posted 04-30-2001 03:40 PM ET (US)     Profile for Tsuriki BW  Send Email to Tsuriki BW     
lhg, I envy you. Our salmon season is closed now. Opens June 1 for some areas..

Ahhh love that headshake..


triblet posted 04-30-2001 08:13 PM ET (US)     Profile for triblet  Send Email to triblet     
As a recreational boater, as long as you
stay in US waters, you don't need a license.
Just use your boat name as your call sign (I have NEVER heard
anyone use their registration numbers).
This is a good reason to give a small boat a

If you got to Canada, the boat needs a
Ship Station License ($75), and you need a
Restricted Radiotelephone Operator's Permit


jimh posted 04-30-2001 11:04 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
Back when a Restricted Third Class Radiotelephone Operator License was practically free (or maybe $5), I actually had one.

I also had a First Class Radio Telephone License, which permitted me to adjust and operate basically any radiotelephone transmitter in ay service in the United States (including ones running several million watts). You get that license by taken a series of technical examinations.

But I carried the Third Class Restricted License with me because I figured I would run into some law enforcement official somewhere who would demand that I have one and not be able to understand the concept that I held a license of a much higher rating and did not need that one.

By the way, the Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter decided that there was no real need for all these licenses because requiring that people have them created a problem--virtually no women or minorities had these licenses and thus they could not get any jobs in broadcasting where higher class licenses were required. So to make that problem go away, they just threw out all the licensing requirements and collapsed all the licenses into a single category "General Radio License". "Stoke of the pen; law of the land," I think the saying goes.

So all the work and study I put into getting my First Class license was erased by Jimmy Carter. To add insult to injury, I was supposed to surrender my First Class License and accept the "General License" as a replacement.

I said the hell with that. I kept my First Class License and told the Jimmy Carter run FCC that I had lost it, please send me a duplicate. Then I sent the duplicate in to get it dumbed down into a "General Radio License".

After that I pretty much lost complete respect for the FCC and regulations. I mean, give me a break: $45 for sending you a license that you get by being able to be smart enough to sign your name to the application form? What is the point? It is just a way to dig up some money to help run the government.

When I am in Canada I never transmit unless it is an emergency, and in an emergency unlicensed stations and operators are permitted.

Besides, in three decades of cruising in Canadian water no one has ever asked me if I had a station license or an operators license.


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