Boat Cockpit

VHF Radio Lingo: Talk Like an Old Salt

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You’ve got your new marine VHF radio connected and turned on. You hear the chatter from other boaters, and you… don’t exactly know what it all means. VHF Radio Lingo is quite confusing, but also pretty simple to decipher once you understand a few things.

In today’s article, we’re going to be taking a look at VHF radio lingo so that you’re able to properly communicate to other boaters and the Coast Guard should you ever run into trouble or just need to provide a standard status update.  You’ll learn everything you need to know to not sound silly if you need to use your radio!


VHF Radios

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VHF stands for Very High Frequency. It is the standard radio wave format used for marine communications. These types of waves function almost exactly like your standard FM radio waves and have a range of around 100 miles.

If you’re very close to shore, you’ll likely still have a cell phone signal or possibly Marine WiFi, especially if you use a Marine WiFi extender. But once you get out of range, a VHF Radio is critical for safety and communication.

This format makes them perfect for coastal transmissions, such as hailing a nearby boat or alerting the Coast Guard to your presence or predicament.

The reason VHF is used is that it’s particularly resistant to contamination such as atmospheric noise, rain, clouds, etc. The only thing that can really have a bad effect on VHF waves are electrical storms.

It’s also the main reason why VHF is not recommended for recreational vehicles to go out during severe weather. If they run into trouble, it can be a lot harder for them to get help. 

Another reason that VHF is the most commonly used radio for boats is that it’s affordable. VHF radio technology is compact and most boating setups don’t cost more than a few hundred dollars, depending on the quality and brand.

This is perfect for the everyday boater. 

VHF Radio Lingo: The Basics

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One of the biggest mistakes that first-time boaters make is that they talk into their VHF radios like they were walkie talkies. This can cause a lot of confusion and misinterpretations. And that’s not something you want when you’re in need of emergency assistance! 

If you’ve ever seen old military movies, then you’ve probably taken note of the times where the communication officer is on the old-school HAM radio using terms like “Alpha Whiskey Foxtrot, Over, Out, Copy” and more.

These are radio-specific terms that are designed to provide clarity and ease of communication so that there’s no confusion and parties can be easily understood. 

It may seem a bit outdated with today’s technology, but keep in mind that these traditions developed out of military use so they’re probably not going anywhere anytime soon. Thankfully, they’re all fairly easy terms to remember and with a little bit of practice, you’ll be a pro in no time! 

“Over” and “Out”

These are probably the two most common terms that most kids learn from watching TV and movies. A common mistake is for sailors to use both of these words in one sentence, saying “Over and Out.”

While it does have a nice ring to it, these two words each mean something different and should not be used together in the same phrase. 


Over is a statement that means you’ve completed your transmission (what you’re saying) and that you want a response from somebody on the other end. You’ll then take your finger off the transmit button and wait for a response.


Out, on the other hand, means the exact opposite! Use this term to indicate that you’re finished with your transmission and you may not want a response back. 

If you’re saying “over and out” and hoping for a response back, you may not get one! This is one of the most important radio terms for you and everybody on your boat to learn. 

Using The Phonetic Alphabet

Back in the days of early HAM radio, voices were often laden with static and were often distorted. This led to a lot of confusion when it came to certain key terms and code words such as names, locations, identification codes, etc. 

The phonetic alphabet was developed to ensure that there was always clarity in communication. Here’s an example:

  • A- Alpha
  • B- Bravo
  • C- Charlie
  • D- Delta
  • E- Echo
  • F- Foxtrot
  • G- Golf

The phonetic alphabet is all standardized by NATO (The North Atlantic Trade Organization) and is recognized by all English-speaking countries and marine forces. Here’s a link if you want to see the full list. Do you best to memorize it, and keep a printed and laminated copy in your boat by the radio. 

You don’t need to use the phonetic alphabet for every single word you say, but when it comes to important things (like the name of your ship, your personal name, etc.) these should always be used to provide clarity. 

Transmitting Numbers

When you’re transmitting numbers, you should always say them in a digital format. For instance, instead of saying “twenty-two”, you should say “two-two”. This ensures that the numbers are clearly transmitted and there’s no confusion. Also, when saying the number nine, it’s common to use the term “niner” since nine is often confused for five

Using Call Signs

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If you’re trying to transmit the name of your boat, it’s a good idea to use call signs to help differentiate your boat from others. There may be multiple boats in the area with the same name as you. 

If your boat is named The Dragon, it’s a good idea to use a custom call sign to differentiate your boat from other Dragons that might be on the same radio frequency. Instead, use a term like Whiskey-Dragon-Niner that’s unique and nobody else uses. 

This is a good reason to come up with a good boat name. See our article on How to Name Your Boat for ideas.

How To Hail or Respond To Hails

If you want to hail another boat and you know its name, you should go to Channel 16 (the most common hailing frequency) and repeat the boat’s name three times followed by identifying your boat. E.g.- “Apollo, Apollo, Apollo, this is the ship Jupiter, do you read me?”

To respond, the other ship would say something like “I hear you loud and clear” indicating that the transmission was received clearly. After this, the two ships may switch to a different channel so that their conversation isn’t clogging up the hailing frequency for other boaters. 

Emergency Talk

Last but not least, it’s important to understand emergency terms if the worst does happen. 

The most common word that most people have heard is Mayday. This word lets other boaters and authorities know that you’re in a life-threatening situation and should only be used in deadly situations such as a sinking ship, deadly injury, running out of fuel and drifting away from shore, etc. 

When making a Mayday call, always be sure to state your vessel’s name, how many crew members are on board, the problem that’s occurring, and your geographical position so that help can easily find you. 

Final Tips

Although it may all seem a bit confusing at first, learning how to use the proper terminology when using your VHF radio will not only gain the respect of other boaters in the water, but it may save your life one day.

Most of these VHF Radio Lingo terms are easy to memorize and can fit on one or two sheets of paper that you can store by your radio should you ever forget! 



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