Communication breakdown 

Geoff Middleton | Volume 25, Issue 1
The correct use of marine radios is paramount to safe boating and in the right hands, a marine radio can save lives.

In light of the fact that the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has released a discussion paper about regulatory arrangements for VHF marine radios used by recreational boat operators, we thought it timely to bring readers up to date on marine radio communications and the laws and rules that govern them.

The purpose of the discussion paper, VHF Marine Radio Operator Qualification Arrangements – Non-Commercial (Recreational) Vessels, is to gather comments in response to concerns in the marine sector about safety and the use of VHF radios by recreational boaters. The ACMA is interested in hearing all views across the spectrum of interested parties – from individuals who operate marine radios on a recreational basis, to marine industry representatives and regulatory bodies throughout Australia.

“Correct radio use is fundamental to the safety of the maritime community,” said Chris Chapman, Chairman of the ACMA. “Our discussion paper outlines a range of ideas aimed at achieving more appropriate VHF radio use amongst recreational boaters and we want the ‘boaties’ to give us their vital feedback.”

Of late, concern has been growing – especially from NSW – about the use and, more to the point, the misuse of marine radios – specifically VHF radios.

To operate a VHF radio, the user must hold a Radio Operator’s Certificate of Proficiency, but figures show that although the numbers of VHF radios sold has been steadily increasing, the number of people applying for certificates has been steadily declining.

The consequence of this is that radio channels, specifically channel 16, which is reserved for distress, safety and calling, are being jammed or used for general chatter.

As the following quotes from the discussion paper attest, this is a growing problem: “The ACMA has received complaints about the standard of procedures used by operators of VHF marine radios and particularly that this is impacting on access to channel 16 for emergency situations. In addition, some operators who get into difficulties are not using the internationally accepted procedures that were developed to ensure that calls for assistance convey essential information for a rapid response.

“Channel 16 is designated, internationally, as the emergency and calling channel for ships and small craft. A vessel’s crew may use channel 16 to call other vessels and coast stations, but once communication has been established, the operators must change to a working channel to continue the conversation. This ensures channel 16 remains available for emergency situations and other calls.”

As Australia is a member of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which regulates radio frequency usage and the operation of radio telecommunications worldwide, all operators of radios other than those operating in the 27Mhz marine band must hold the Radio Operator’s Certificate of Proficiency or its equivalent. This is covered under the Radio communications Act 1992.

In Australia, three types of marine radios are commonly used. These are: radios operating in the 27Mhz band, equipment operating in the international VHF marine band and MF/HF radios.

The 27Mhz radios are typically considered more of an inshore radio, with a maximum range typically being from 8 to 16km. VHF radios are both clearer and more powerful and are often used for offshore, as well as inshore applications, with a maximum range of up to 20km between vessels or up to 50km from a shore base.

One big advantage of VHF radios is that they are monitored by coast stations operated by rescue and other organisations, and vessels can set up logs between themselves and coast stations on coastal voyages.

The MF/HF sets offer immense range of many thousands of kilometres and are also monitored by coast stations. These sets are recommended for vessels undertaking lengthy coastal or overseas voyages and require the vessel to be registered as a station as well as the owner/operator holding a certificate of proficiency.

The primary reason for a licence is to ensure all operators of VHF and MF/HF radios know how to use them correctly.

Marine radios are used in life-and-death situations and the correct usage of the radios and other communications equipment enables rescuers to quickly and efficiently assess the situation and act accordingly. Inefficient use of communications equipment can, and does, affect the outcome of a problem on the water.

In the instance of an emergency, distress channels must be kept clear so that emergency services can communicate with a vessel in distress without any interference.

Other channels are reserved for certain services and recreational boaters must leave these channels clear. For example, certain channels are reserved for the smooth running of ports, while others are reserved for military and police work. These channels must be kept clear for obvious reasons.

Another reason that licencing and training are important is so that users know the correct procedure if they do need to call for assistance. A classic example of this is knowing the difference between a distress call (mayday) and an urgency call (pan pan).

I have personally been in a situation where the call “Mayday” has been used incorrectly and emergency services (including the charter boat I was working on) were scrambled to a boat that was not in ‘grave and imminent danger’.

The call came through on our VHF as we were fishing with a charter group off Sydney. Apparently there was a boat in distress near Manly. Being in the vicinity, we immediately hauled in lines and made all haste north. As these calls are monitored, the coast guard and water police from Sydney Harbour were also rushing to the assistance of the distressed boat. We arrived on the scene to find a perfectly sound boat at anchor, with nothing more than an empty fuel tank. Needless to say, the water police had more than a few words to say to the skipper.

These sorts of stupid mistakes occur all the time and use up valuable resources that may be needed elsewhere. They also cost the taxpayer and the volunteer groups unnecessary time and money. But for some training and licencing, these sort of incidents could be avoided.

Currently, examination and certification for licences and satellite endorsements are provided through the Office of Maritime Communications (OMC) at the Australian Maritime College, on behalf of the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

Many marine rescue organisations, boating and fishing clubs, maritime colleges and some colleges of technical and further education (TAFE) provide training courses leading to the Marine Radio Operator’s Certificate of Proficiency and the Marine Radio Operator’s VHF Certificate of Proficiency.

Examinations generally consist of a written test, with all information coming from the Marine Radio Operator’s Handbook, which is a valuable asset that should be kept close at hand by all boaties. Put out by the Australian Maritime College, it contains all information necessary to operate marine radios, including the latest radios with Digital Selective Calling (DSC).

For more information, contact the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

For details on how to obtain certificates or a copy of the Marine Radio Operator’s Handbook, visit Australian Maritime College.

Icom Australia has just released a new entry level marine VHF transceiver onto the Australian market. The new transceiver, the IC-M411, completes Icom’s range of marine communication products, with the company now having a marine product to suit the budget of any boating enthusiast, says Icom.

Icom says buyers can rest assured that a more affordable product does not mean lower quality, as the IC-M411, like all Icom radios, is made in Japan and adhers to strict quality standards.

The new transceiver boasts a strong IPX7 design, meaning the unit is waterproof to a depth of one metre for 30 minutes. Powerful class-D DSC is also featured in the transceiver, meaning the unit has a dedicated DSC receiver.

Other features include Icom’s AquaQuake draining function, which emits a buzzing noise to clear water from the speaker, favourite channel function and dual/tri-watch functions. The unit can also be connected to Icom’s MXA-5000 AIS receiver, allowing on-screen visual marine safety with a compatible chart plotter.

The new Icom IC-M411 has a recommended retail price of $374.00.

For more information on this and other Icom products, visit Icom.

Flexibility has been key in the design of GME’s GX600D, with features including compact size, IP67 waterproof rating, colour choice and range of mounting and second-station options.

Standard on the GX600D is a full-function keypad microphone, with a simple mobile-phone-style operating system, ensuring operators can access the full benefits of the radio’s extensive feature list, says GME. In many parts of the world, Europe and the USA in particular, all fixed-mount VHF radios are now required to include a basic DSC (Digital Selective Calling) capability.

The GME GX600D, however, goes well beyond this, says GME, and when interfaced with a GPS receiver, it is able to transmit crucial vessel information, including position and the nature of the distress call.

In an emergency, one push of the ‘red button’ will send an automated digital distress alert containing the boat’s position and Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number to rescue facilities and other DSC-equipped vessels in the area.

The GX600D comes with a second receiver so both voice and data are monitored independently, ensuring the user will never miss a DSC call.

The GX600D class D DSC radio also provides users with a valuable range of non-emergency capabilities, permitting communication with another boat or group of boats using individual or group MMSI numbers, says GME. If interfaced to a GPS-equipped chart plotter, the radio can send, receive and display each vessel’s position as well.

Designed and manufactured in Australia, the GME GX600D has been styled to complement GME’s expanding range of marine products.

It also has the added advantage that a second station can be added. The RM600D is a remote station that, when connected to the GX600D via the supplied connecting cable, will replicate all the functions of the GX600D. This offers a simple solution when a second station in a cockpit or flybridge is required.

For more information, visit the GME website.

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