Radio Checks? Stop the madness!

As a quick response rescue captain for the Rhode Island TowBoat/US contractor, I’m on call 24 hours/day, so it is common practice for me to sleep with the VHF radio on next to my 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, about every sixty seconds, for twenty minutes. Unable to endure this torture any further, I finally picked up the microphone and asked the guy to switch to another channel. Then I asked 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 16 outnumber any other phrase you will hear. And every one of those requests is in violation of the FCC rules that govern the use of VHF marine band radios. Channel 16 is designated the international "hailing and distress" frequency, and should be used only to call another vessel, or to call for assistance from the Coast Guard or agencies like Sea//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: the request almost never comes from a ship, a commercial tug, or a passenger ferry. NinetyNine percent of all radio checks are from recreational boaters (especially on CH16).1 You might think that commercial vessels have better equipment, but I have been in the wheelhouse of numerous commercial boats and tugs, and their VHF radios probably came from the same discount catalogue as yours did. Indeed, things have gotten so out of control, that the Coast Guard repeatedly announces that VHF CH09 is “the radio check channel”. How did this radio check madness get so out of hand? I have a few theories. First of all, I think many boaters hear so many calls for radio checks that they have convinced themselves that it is something that they should be doing, because it sounds like everyone else is doing it. This becomes a perpetual cycle, as more and more boaters call for radio checks, more boaters hear the calls, and eventually can’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 based stations on CH16. They have permission from the FCC to test their equipment on that channel because they are the agency assigned to answer distress calls on that frequency.

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perpetuating practice is the cause of many unnecessary radio checks, rather than any actual suspicion that one’s radio is malfunctioning. Then there are those who are calling a friend on another boat, but get no answer. They know their buddy is out there somewhere, and because they can't reach him, they suspect that their radio is malfunctioning, so they call for a radio check. The more logical reason that their call to the friend went unanswered is because either the friend is monitoring a different frequency, they have their volume turned down, or they are too far away to receive 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-radio check’. 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 you would turn a dial to tune in a frequency, and one's ability to contact someone via radio was 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 the thing on. Fortunately, those days are long gone. Today's modern VHF radios are completely electronic, and most are housed in a water resistant, if not WATERPROOF housing. The user cannot adjust the gain or fine tune a frequency, as one had to in the old days of tubes and dials. Here is a quote from Chapman Piloting and Seamanship: "Calls for routine radio checks are rarely necessary; modern solid-state radios are 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 twentyone years ago, when my Chapman was published in 1985. Certainly, there are times when a radio check is appropriate. Anytime you install a new radio, 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 is the logic behind Chapman’s suggestion that if your radio is receiving well, it most likely is 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 radio check, because you have no knowledge of the equipment that you are proposing to use to

evaluate your own equipment. What happens when ‘any vessel’ answers with “You’re all broken up and hard to read”? Does that indicate a problem with your radio, or his? Perhaps the answering station is thirty miles away, in which case an answer of “You’re all broken up” indicates your radio is working exceptionally well. A meaningful radio check should be between you and a known source with quality equipment, like your local commercial assistance provider. If you are going to make sure your radio works, it makes sense to test your ability to converse with the station that you will most likely call when you need help. (Never bother the Coast Guard for a radio check; they have better things to do.) Other good sources for a radio check are marinas and yacht clubs, but don’t ask for it on channel 16. Fixed base stations are usually a better choice for a radio check than another vessel. If you must conduct a radio check, here is the proper way to do it. Assume you are going to call your marina, know as “Bob’s Marina”, and you know they monitor CH16. Begin by listening on CH16 for a few minutes to confirm that there are no emergency transmissions currently using that channel. Assuming the channel is clear, begin with this transmission: “Bob’s Marina, this is the vessel YOUR VESSEL NAME requesting a working frequency for non-emergency traffic, Over.” Avoid even mentioning the words ‘radio check’ on CH16. Bob’s Marina should reply to you and ask you to switch to a working frequency, like channel 09, or 68. Acknowledge the instruction and repeat the working frequency, “Roger, YOUR VESSEL NAME switching to channel xx.” Now switch your radio to the working frequency and wait for Bob’s Marina to call you. You should wait for them, because your call may have interrupted some other business that they have to complete. Once Bob’s Marina acknowledges your call, just say, “radio check please.”

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