VHF Radio and The Irish Inland Waterways Boater


Many areas of confusion surround the use and licensing of VHF radios on our inland waterways. Many boats have them fitted or owners may have acquired them already installed in their boats. There are many types of VHF radio and equally there are several specific requirements that must be met before you can operate a VHF radio on a boat. These also apply to handheld portables.

Modern VHF Radios are powerful, compact and economical units and are readily available. Marine VHF is a channel based system in that the radio band that it operates on is divided up into dedicated and standardised slots called channel, rather like your TV set.

These new radios conform to the requirements of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. ( GMDSS) . They have the ability to transmit digital distress messages, that can include position information and also you can use the digital calling technology, known as Digital Selective Calling (DSC), rather like a mobile phone, where you enter the number ( called the MMSI) of the vessel you want to call, assuming they have DSC and then their DSC VHF radio “rings” like a phone. All DSC radios have all the conventional features of standard VHF radios as well and voice communication is carried on exactly as before.

Note that all new VHF fixed mount radios sold in the EU now must be at least DSC capable. Either it will have DSC ability built in or can be easily upgraded to do so. For pleasure boats at present, there is no requirement to fit a DSC VHF radio.

This is the standard VHF radio, either in fixed mount version or handheld portable. Typically fixed mount units are permanently wired into the boat and transmit on greater power than handheld units.

It may not be readily apparent to the inland waterway boater why they should fit a VHF, however:

(a) In an emergency the Coast Guard can be quickly contacted, especially now they have radio stations on Lough Ree, Lough Derg, and the Erne.

(b) Other boaters in the area can be alerted to a distress or be coordinated by the Coast Guard Radio Station to help in a rescue.

(c) Receive the weather forecast at regular intervals, especially now as there is a dedicated inland lakes forecast.

(d) Communicate with other boaters.

VHF sets are now available at low cost and at a minimum boats should at least carry a handheld unit.

In the Republic of Ireland, to install and operate a VHF radio requires a Ships Radio License, more correctly and beautifully called a “License to establish a Wireless Telegraph Ship Station” (makes you feel like Marconi doesn’t it). This document should not be confused with the normal Certificate of Competence, which is more commonly referred as “the license” or the operators license

The Ships Radio License allows you to establish the actual radio installation, it specifies what frequencies and power you may you and most importantly it provides you with a Call Sign. The call sign for Irish pleasure vessels is EIxxxx where XXXX is a four digit number. This call sign is an international unique identifier for that vessel. If you have the full operators certificate you will also be issued a Maritime Mobile Service Identity ( MMSI). This is your DSC VHF radio’s “phone number”.

You apply for your ships radio license, after acquiring your operator’s license, providing Communications Regulator (ComReg) with details of the vessel, etc.

In Northern Ireland, the provisions are very similar. The Ships radio License consists of a license document , license terms booklet and a license disk (which must be displayed on the boat).

The certificate comes in various forms, all of which are operators licenses. The most basic is “The Restricted Certificate in Radiotelephony (VHF only),” which is achieved by passing Module 1 of the SRC (Short Range Certificate) exam. This certificate entitles you to use a standard voice only ( no DSC, see below) VHF. This is what many boats are currently fitted with.

Should you require to operate the new digital calling radios (DSC) and be capable of using the safety equipment under the new GMDSS, then you will be required to complete both Module 1 and Module 2 of the SRC, thereby acquiring the full Radio Operators Short Range Certificate.

Most VHF courses now focus on passing both modules together and there are plans to discontinue Module 1 only exams after 2005. So in the future, there will be only the standard SRC cert. Anyway, the course is easy to do and the exams are simple and straightforward. There are many course providers around the Island ( see useful links).

In Northern Ireland, the provision of the Short Range Certificate in VHF is delegated by the Radio Communications Agency to the Royal Yachting Association (RYA). The RYA certifies course providers which then provide the exam. This is a one-day exam.

Note: That as of 1st June 2004, Any RYA VHF license acquired after this date cannot be used to apply for a ships radio license for a boat subject to the radio licensing laws of the Republic of Ireland.

  • Don’t say “Over and Out” to end a conversation, the correct procedure is each side simply says “Out”. (Nothing gives away an unlicensed user as much as this!).
  • Don’t Use Channel 16 for long conversations, it’s primarily a distress channel, make a short call and then change to an agreed working channel (normally channel 6,8,72,77). Remember you may be causing interference unknowingly.
  • Don’t let your kids or any unlicensed operator use the radio for routine business, its illegal to do so.
  • Don’t use VHF radios on-shore, either for shore to ship or shore to shore communications, these are forbidden by your license conditions
  • Don’t conduct non-ship business over the radio, for example, conversations about the long drive home
  • Do use the approved procedures and special words to get your message across. It speeds the process and makes things clearer
  • Do listen at all times the vessel is in use to Channel 16, this is a requirement of your license.
  • Do call the Coast Guard Radio stations using their working channel for routine business wherever possible, for example, when requesting a radio check.
  • Do be brief, courteous and professional at all times in the communications you conduct
  • Do ensure that you know the rules and regulations.

Channel 16 Distress and calling channel, monitored by the Coast Guard

Channel 6,8,72,77 Inter-ship channels

Channel 62 Lough Ree Coast Guard Working Channel

Channel 61 Lough Derg Coast Guard Working Channel

(announce on CH 16) 0103, 0403, 0703, 1003, 1303, 1603, 1903, 2203 local time.
(announced first on CH 16)

Lough Ree Radio VHF Ch 62 07.15hrs with a repeat at 09.15hrs16.15hrs with a repeat at 18.15hrs

Lough Derg Radio VHF Ch 61 At 07.20hrs with a repeat 09.20hrs16.20hrs with repeat at 18.20hrs

www.transport.ie RoI – Ships Radio Licence particulars and a list of training course providers can be found here

www.rya.co.uk List of Northern Ireland RYA VHF course providers can be found here

www.sailing.ie Irish Sailing Association ( search for “VHF”)