Living With Our Rapido 963f Le Randonneur Motor Home.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Regulations for using a VHF ship's radio in the UK.

With all the recent narrowboat blog posts I have read regarding trips down the tidal River Thames, I have noticed there have been various comments on the need to have a marine VHF radio aboard, or at least accessible to a boat within a small convoy, (which should in any case have close range radio contact with the VHF equipped boat). What is required to own and use such equipment is a minefield of complicated rules, regulations and basic technical knowledge, that differs between Europe, the USA, and the UK, which itself has implications on how and where to obtain equipment.

Owned before our narrowboat and prior to my decision on what path our future boat ownership would take, our Freeman 24 was used on the tidal River Douglas, Ribble, Lune, and previously, Thames and was fitted with a Garmin GPS tracker linked to a fixed DSC VHF marine radio.
I took my own day course, followed by an examination, and gained my operator's certificate back in 2007. Although I now hold an operator's licence, I currently don't own a radio of my own, so would be restricted to using a fixed radio on another vessel, (not somebody else's handheld - see below), until I again acquired my own equipment with its own relevant fixed or portable ship's radio licence.

Here I will attempt to detail the basics of acquiring, owning and using equipment in the UK only, with various links at the end so that the reader can make a more detailed analysis.

What is a ship's radio used for?
Primarily for safety, and the safe navigation of vessels. It is used to make distress calls during an emergency, vessel to vessel calls relating to navigation, and calls to shore based stations such as marinas and locks to warn of an impending visit. It should never be used for general chit chat.

Why would I require one for inland waterways use?
Obviously, some lakes and rivers, particularly tidal reaches, have dangerous aspects, with implications to the safe passage of small vessels, so it is not only good practice to have equipment available in these circumstances, but is often a requirement of the navigation authority.

What type of equipment is available?
There are both fixed and handheld portable radios, in standard and DSC, (Digital Selective Calling), form. DSC is the way forward in this type of equipment, and although there are many differences over a standard VHF radio, the main advantage in use is that in a distress situation, an automated distress call will be put out, with a position, (when connected to a GPS), on pressing a single red (protected) button on the radio. Handheld DSC radios should have built in GPS. Fixed DSC radios will require a position entering hourly if they are not connected to a GPS, which of course, in best practice, they should be.

What licenses are required to use this equipment?
A fixed radio within a vessel will be required to have a ship's radio licence, where a unique call sign will be allocated to identify that vessel. DSC equipment will have an MMSI, (maritime mobile service identity), number allocated, which will have to be entered and stored in the radio prior to use. This is then transmitted digitally when an automated distress call is sent, for example. Once in-putted, this number remains with the radio and vessel, and if the equipment is sold, it must be removed by a qualified radio technician prior to the sale.

Handheld equipment is registered on a portable ship's radio licence, and rather than a unique vessel call sign, a 'T' number is allocated to identify the owner, so that it can be used on any vessel. One handheld radio can be licensed as an extension to a vessel's fixed licence, but can then only be used on that vessel. Each subsequent handheld radio has its own portable radio licence.

Marine VHF radios can only be operated by the holder of an operator's certificate, or under the direct guidance of the certificate holder, such as crew, (unless there is an emergency situation which necessitates use by an unqualified person). The operators course, exam and licence issue is overseen in the UK by the Royal Yachting Association, (RYA). The course is usually a day, followed by an examination of competency, although, if you feel confident enough, the exam can be taken alone.

The holder of a pre-1999 ship's radio operator's certificate cannot use DSC equipment until a DSC extension has been obtained, requiring further training. Current courses now train in the use of DSC and the relevant certificate is issued.

Can I buy equipment off somebody in the pub, or second-hand off the internet?
Great care has to be taken when buying in this way. Equipment built for the American market for example, will have different channel configurations, and there is the issue of stored MMSI numbers. Any equipment should also be checked against the Ofcom website to ensure it complies with UK specifications. A reputable dealer will help with this.

There are also regulations relating to which countries handheld equipment can and can't be used, with reasons why not. Fixed, vessel radios can be used internationally. The specification of many cheaper, non-DSC handheld radios will state ' Not ATIS, (Automatic Transmitter Identification System), compatible - can't be used on inland waterways'. My own understanding is that this system is required for use on mainland European inland waterways, but cannot be used in UK waters, as UK licences don't allow for the installation or use of ATIS enabled equipment. What's more, an ATIS capable UK spec. handheld cannot in any case be used in Europe due to it being covered by a UK portable licence, which only covers use in UK waters, and an ATIS number relates to a vessel, where a UK portable licence relates only to the owner of the equipment! The adverts don't always make this clear by not differentiating between European and UK inland waterways. As I said above - a minefield. Below are a list of resources which should be studied prior to obtaining your new radio equipment.

Ofcom guide to marine VHF channels.

Ofcom ship's radio licence information sheet.

Ofcom ship's radio licence FAQ.

Ofcom handheld DSC radio FAQ.

ATIS - the facts.


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