VHF Marine Radios

Should I buy a hand held or a fixed VHF radio?

A fixed VHF radio

A hand held VHF radio

That depends on what and where you want to use your radio.

A fixed set must stay on the boat it's registered to and not be moved from boat to boat. It is more powerful than a hand held unit, so is able to transmit a greater distance. The antenna should be mounted as high as possible on a boat, which also increases the range. There is no internal battery and must be connected to a reliable and charged battery at all times. Some fixed radios can have a remote handset which can be fitted in the cockpit. All new fixed radios have Digital Selective Calling (DSC) and should be linked to a satellite navigation receiver. In a distress, situation, you can send a DSC Distress Alert easily and quickly. It sends your MMSI, position, time, and nature of your distress. DSC has other benefits too.

A hand held radio can be carried with you, from boat to boat if you wish. It's lighter, easy to carry, and has it's own rechargeable battery. It's restricted to a relatively low transmitting power and the antenna is low, so can only communicate over much shorter distances. You should still hear the coastguard from a fair way off. Some hand held radios can be fitted with a headset, allowing you to use it 'hands free' with a helmet on. Some hand helds will float and flash a strobe light if it falls in the water. There are models that have DSC and some don't.

Radio manufacturers often add extra features to entice you to buy their set. Some examples are NAVTEX, AIS receiver, ATIS, and built-in GNSS.

VHF Marine Radio licensing

What kind of licence do I need?

Just like a car needs road tax and you need a driving licence, the boat/radio must have it's own licence and you need a licence to operate it (it's called the "Maritime Radio Operators' Certificate of Competence and Authority to Operate"). The easiest and quickest way to get your operator's licence is to do the Short Range Certificate course.

For a hand held radio, you need a Ship Portable Radio Licence. It's valid for life. If you have a PLB, you should also add this to your licence.

If you have a fixed radio in your boat, you need a Ship Radio Licence. It's valid for the life of your boat. You can add your hand held radio to this licence and any other radio transmitting devices, such as Radar, EPIRB, SART, and AIS.

To get your Short Range Certificate, you have to do a short course either in a classroom or online, then pass the practical test in person at a training centre. The certificate is valid for life It's not difficult to do and we, at Bay Sea School, are specialists in helping people to become safe and competent boaters.

I'll only use my radio on a lake or river, do I still need the licences?

Yes, definately.

What is the cost of the Ship Radio and Ship Portable Radio licences and where can I get one from?

They are both free of charge if you apply online to OFCOM.  

I've bought a radio. Should I wait until I get my SRC licence before applying for the licence for the radio?

No, you should apply for a radio licence now.

I haven't got an SRC yet, can I use my radio?

You can listen but must not transmit (talk on the radio), unless someone with an SRC is supervising you.

I've sold my boat, what should I do with the Ship Radio Licence?

You must surrender the licence on the OFCOM website.

I've sold my hand held radio, what should I do with the Ship Portable Radio Licence?

You must surrender the licence on the OFCOM website.

I've bought a second hand radio, it already has an MMSI number in it, can I use it?

No, definately not. Ask a Marine Electrical Engineer to erase the old MMSI, then input the one you obtained from OFCOM on your Ship Radio Licence.

I have an RYA/MCA Restricted Operators Licence (or UK Aviation Radio Licence), can I go directly to the SRC exam to gain the Marine licence?

Yes you can, however it requires a good knowledge of the GMDSS. You will also need a photocopy of your existing certificate. We strongly recommend you do the full SRC course first, all such students we've trained agree that the course was beneficial.

What is a call sign and an MMSI and how can I get them?

They are both unique ways to identify a boat. This helps the Coastguard to find out who you are if you need help. An example of a fixed radio call sign is MOAV2. A hand held radio call sign will start with the letter T, then contain numbers, e.g. T352481. The MMSI numbers are 9 digits long, the first 3 are your country code. For example, those starting with 232, 233, 234, and 235 are all UK numbers. They're issued by OFCOM and stay with the boat for the rest of it's life. 

My sailing club (or marina) want to buy a radio for use ashore in the office. What kind of licence do we need?

Firstly, you'll need to buy a Coast Radio set that is limited to channels 80, M, & M2. Marinas should only use Ch 80 or Ch M and staff will need an SRC to use Ch 80. Sailing clubs should only use Ch M or M2. These are private channels so an SRC is not required. Secondly, you'll need to apply for a Coastal Station Radio (Marina) licence. There is currently a fee of £75 per 5 years. This kind of licence is only for use in directing pleasure vessels and races. Remember, it is illegal to use a Ship Radio whilst onshore (this includes a hand held radio). 

My UK company wants to buy a radio for use ashore in the office to discuss commerical matters with our boats on the water. What kind of licence do we need?

You'll need a Coastal Station Radio (UK) licence. You'll be assigned a private channel for use between your 'Coast Radio set' and the radios on your boats. Because you'll be using a private channel, your staff do not need an SRC. See the OFCOM website for further details. The radios fitted to the boats will need reprogramming to include the private channel. Each boat will also need a Ship Radio Licence.


What do they do?

When switched on, they transmit a distress signal on a VHF radio frequency (one that's not used by any other radio sets). They also transmit a 'homing signal' that can be picked up by certain rescue vessels and used to guide them to your location. In addition, they emit a bright strobe light. They will operate anywhere in the world, as long as they are on the surface!

What's the difference between an EPIRB and a PLB?

They both do the same thing. The only difference is that once activated, an EPIRB is guaranteed to transmit for at least 48 hours. A PLB will work for around 24 hours. An EPIRB 'belongs' to a boat, whereas a PLB can be carried with you during any water based activity. PLBs are also much smaller and lighter than an EPIRB.

How do they work?

Some EPIRBs have to be manually switched on, others are activated automatically when they are in water. Some EPIRBS have GNSS receivers built in, others don't. The distress signal is received by a network of satellites and relayed to the relevant Coastguard in the country of registration. Some of the satellites can wok out your location to within 3 miles, but that can take around 45 minutes. The other satellites can relay your GNSS location, allowing the Coastguard to see your position more precisely. They will float and have a lanyard so you can tie it to yourself or the liferaft. They do not have a microphone, so you cannot use it to talk to anyone!

What's a Hex ID and why is it important?

This is a unique alphanumeric code assigned to your device. When you buy an EPIRB or PLB, you must register it with the 'National EPIRB Registry'. In the UK, that's in Falmouth. The coastguard will then know who you are if you need help.

What if I accidentally switch it on?

Then you must switch it off immediately and contact the Coastguard, either by phone or radio.

When do I need to change the battery?

If unused, the battery is good for 5 years. Send your EPIRB back to the manufacturers and they'll fit a new battery. PLB batteries also last for 5 years and can usually be replaced 'at home'.

Do I need licence for it?

Yes, an EPIRB must be added to your Ship Radio Licence. A PLB must be added to your Ship Portable Radio Licence

Automatic Identification System (AIS)

What is AIS?

It's a system that allows you to track vessel positions. Typically, a boat fitted with an AIS transmitter will automatically 'broadcast' its name, type of vessel, MMSI, position, course, speed, last port, and destination. Vessels fitted with an AIS receiver can see the details of all those vessels in the vicinity. It will also warn you of an impending ‘close encounter’. Not all boats have AIS, but big ships have to have it. It's great for 'situational awareness', but bear in mind that it's not Radar. AIS data is usually a few minutes old when you see it. Some buoys, beacons and land based structures have AIS transmitters, which can help you determine your position. Small MOB-AIS transmitters can be carried by your crew to alert you and other boats of a Man Overboard.

Does it need a licence?

If you have an AIS transmitting device, then yes, it must be added to your Ship Radio Licence. 

Automatic Transmitter Identification System (ATIS)

What is ATIS?

The ATIS system enables shore based radio stations to know who you are whenever you make a call on your radio. It's a legal requirement when boating on inland waterways in some EU countries. You must remember to switch it off, by selecting INT 'International' channels, before returning to the UK. For more information, and a list of the countries, read what ICOM have to say on their website.