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Radio Checks

Radio Checks

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Published by Doug Gould

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Published by: Doug Gould on Feb 10, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Radio Checks? Stop the madness!
As a quick response rescue captain for the Rhode Island TowBoat/US contractor, I’m oncall 24 hours/day, so it is common practice for me to sleep with the VHF radio on next tomy bunk. I remember a few years ago, I heard a voice continuously calling "radio check"on channel 16 at about one o’clock in the morning. The calls continued relentlessly, aboutevery sixty seconds, for twenty minutes. Unable to endure this torture any further, Ifinally picked up the microphone and asked the guy to switch to another channel. Then Iasked him this question: "Cap, you've been calling for a radio check for twenty minutes,without a single reply. Did it occur to you that there might be a problem with your radio,and it wasn't working?"He relied, "Oh, I’m sure my radio works. I just wanted a radio check.""Captain, if you know your radio works, why are you asking for a radio check?" I never got an answer.If you spend any time listening to your VHF radio, you will hear calls for "radio check".Indeed, on a Sunday afternoon, the repeated requests for radio checks on channel 16outnumber any other phrase you will hear. And every one of those requests is in violationof the FCC rules that govern the use of VHF marine band radios. Channel 16 isdesignated the international "hailing and distress" frequency, and should be used only tocall another vessel, or to call for assistance from the Coast Guard or agencies likeSea//Tow and TowBOAT/US. It is also a violation to put out a call to “any vessel”.The next time you hear a request for a radio check, I want you to notice something: therequest almost never comes from a ship, a commercial tug, or a passenger ferry. Ninety- Nine percent of all radio checks are from recreational boaters (especially on CH16).
Youmight think that commercial vessels have better equipment, but I have been in thewheelhouse of numerous commercial boats and tugs, and their VHF radios probablycame from the same discount catalogue as yours did.Indeed, things have gotten so out of control, that the Coast Guard repeatedly announcesthat VHF CH09 is “the radio check channel”. How did this radio check madness get soout of hand?I have a few theories. First of all, I think many boaters hear so many calls for radiochecks that they have convinced themselves that it is something that they should bedoing, because it sounds like everyone else is doing it. This becomes a perpetual cycle, asmore and more boaters call for radio checks, more boaters hear the calls, and eventuallycan’t resist the urge to make sure their own radio works. I really believe that this self- 
You may hear US Coast Guard vessels requesting or receiving radio checks from Coast Guard land basedstations on CH16. They have permission from the FCC to test their equipment on that channel because theyare the agency assigned to answer distress calls on that frequency.
 perpetuating practice is the cause of many unnecessary radio checks, rather than anyactual suspicion that one’s radio is malfunctioning.Then there are those who are calling a friend on another boat, but get no answer. Theyknow their buddy is out there somewhere, and because they can't reach him, they suspectthat their radio is malfunctioning, so they call for a radio check. The more logical reasonthat their call to the friend went unanswered is because either the friend is monitoring adifferent frequency, they have their volume turned down, or they are too far away toreceive the transmission.I suspect there are some boaters who use a radio check to impress their landlubber guests.These are the voices you hear using phrases like ‘Ten-four’ and ‘breaker-sixteen-radiocheck’. Neither of those phrases are nautical terms, nor will use of any “trucker talk”make you sound smarter. If you want to sound like a nautical professional, use words like“affirmative” and “roger”.The radio check is a holdover from the old days of tube and crystal AM radios, when youwould turn a dial to tune in a frequency, and one's ability to contact someone via radiowas always somewhat in doubt. There was so much to go wrong with those old radios,that it was standard practice to confirm a radio's performance every time you turned thething on. Fortunately, those days are long gone. Today's modern VHF radios arecompletely electronic, and most are housed in a water resistant, if not WATERPROOFhousing. The user cannot adjust the gain or fine tune a frequency, as one had to in the olddays of tubes and dials. Here is a quote from Chapman Piloting and Seamanship:
"Calls for routine radio checks are rarely necessary; modern solid-state radiosare very reliable. If your set worked last weekend, and you are now hearing other boats, it is highly probably that your set is still functioning satisfactorily." 
Its safe to assume that radios have continued to improve since that was written twenty-one years ago, when my Chapman was published in 1985.Certainly, there are times when a radio check is appropriate. Anytime you install a newradio, or even just a new antenna, you should confirm that it works. A radio check should be part of your spring commissioning checklist. But not every time you leave the dock.The most common problem with modern radios is not the radio, but the connection between the radio and the antenna. Worn, poorly soldered and corroded plugs at the back of your radio are the likely sources of poor reception and transmission. A bad connection between the radio and antenna will degrade both the reception and transmission. This isthe logic behind Chapman’s suggestion that if your radio is receiving well, it most likelyis working just fine. So, if you can hear a transmission from five or more miles away,you’ve just received your radio check.One thing that has never made any sense to me is asking ‘any vessel’ to provide a radiocheck, because you have no knowledge of the equipment that you are proposing to use to

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