VHF Radios and certification

Any advice on VHF radios and how to become certified for use? Where’s the best place to find courses, and what’s the exam like? Speaking in general, obviously, as I realize this is a global forum. I personally, live in Maryland.

In the US, there are no licensing or certification requirements for VHF radios used in kayaks or other small non-commercial boats.

You do not need a license to operate a marine VHF radio, radar, or EPIRBs aboard voluntary ships operating domestically. The term “voluntary ships” refers to ships that are not required by law to carry a radio.

In the USA certification is only required aboard vessels of more than 300 gross tons and vessels that carry more than six passengers for hire. My understanding is that a certification is required in Canada.

Ah, thanks for the info! A few online tutorials, then, should be all I need to learn protocols, do’s and don’ts.


I’ll confirm that you need a license in Canada. You wouldn’t know it by listening to the airwaves though.

In particular, learn the ‘script’ for emergency calls well. I had to call mayday this weekend and while I got the job done, I think I wasn’t as clear as I could have been.

If you live near the coast, check and see if your nearest Coast Guard unit offers classes. They’ll be oriented toward sailors and power boaters, but still worthwhile.

In my experience, coasties really appreciate it when kayakers show an interest in safety and doing things the right way on the water.

just stay off ch. 16 unless it’s an emergency. iirc ch. 9 was the main communication channel.

Best to check w locals. Have paddled places where some of the channels you expect to be useable for chat between paddling group members were actually heavily relied on by local fishermen.

I’m really only interested in it in case I need it in an emergency. Of course, I’m old enough to remember when that was everyone’s excuse for buying their first cellphone, lol!

Here’s a short guide I had put together some time back.

It also has a link to some templates for the various distress/urgency calls; parts may be a bit more formal so just ignore the bits in brackets. The USCG also has a basic “radio into for boaters” page.

On a boat I try to make sure there’s pen and paper by the radio, along with a small card with emergency scripts (saves having to think when something goes wrong). I’d aim for something a bit more compact on a kayak, perhaps a small card taped to the radio?

Channel 16 is a hailing and distress frequency only. Once you get a reply if hailing another vessel switch to a working channel. 68, 89, 71, 72, or 78. Although channel 9 is a secondary hailing and distress channel, it’s rare that anyone other than the USCG and commercial vessels monitor it. The USCG also monitors channel 22.

Radio checks are supposed to be done on channel 9, but it’s rare that anyone answers. Using channel 16 will occasionally get the USCG to bitch at you. It’s best to use a working channel. A few companies are experimenting with an automated radio check system using channels 24-28, depending on where you are, but this is limited at this time, and my experience is that you need to be very close to the tower with a 5-6 watt hand held radio.

If going out with a group, choose a channel for communication ahead of time and do a radio check on this channel when starting out.

In theory, all vessels with a VHF radio are required to monitor channel 16 at all times, but I don’t know anyone who has been sent to Guantanamo for failing to do this, yet anyway.

VHF radios are to be used on the water only, not on land. All channels are public, so don’t hog the channel. Profanity, false Mayday calls, etc. are illegal.