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VHF Radios

"Do I Need One on the Ohio River?"

by, Capt. Eric

I was in the back of a Louisville marine store and overheard a new boater ask, “Do I need a marine VHF radio for the river?” That's a very good question from somebody who had undoubtedly just spent $1000 getting ready for the water. I almost dropped my handful of screws when I heard the reply, “No, everybody has cell phones these days.”

Since you can pick up a good fixed-mount VHF for under $100 (antennae extra), let’s examine a few scenarios:


1) You want to call your partners in crime and arrange a meeting place.

Cell Phone: Advantage--you have a direct connection, and can talk in privacy without tying up VHF ch. 68. Curious boaters won't be dialing-up your conversation.

VHF: Advantage--Still works in areas with no cell phone coverage. This applies downtown during Thunder, also, when half a million people are taking turns making calls from the waterfront.


Above, a 42' Carver with two fixed-mount VHF antennae. Because VHF transmits "line-of-sight," a higher antenna will yield a better range due to the curvature of the Earth.

2) Your engine just quit and there is a barge headed your way blasting his horn! Are you going to call the captain on his cell phone?

If you have a VHF, you can dial-in channel 13 (Bridge-to-Bridge) and make a simple call:

“This is the purple Sea Doo floating at the tip of Twelve Mile Island, Mile 592, approaching towboat please acknowledge...We are drifting with an inoperative engine”

3) Whew--The barge missed you, and it only took a mile for him to stop! You still need help, and at this point, possibly a change of underwear. Your engine is dead, but you are secured at anchor just off the shore of Twelve Mile Island.

Who are you going to call?

In distress:

Coast Guard: They monitor VHF ch. 16, and have repeater stations for several miles north of Louisville (I am unable to confirm how many). They are prepared to provide services via the river, and with the help of local authorities could be your best bet for a rapid reponse on the water.

With a DSC-equipped radio hooked-up to a GPS feed, you could notify the USCG of your position and emergency with a press of a button (see picture below). On the river, they will still want your mile marker.

A friend from the USCG Aux. points out the following two things about the Coast Guard:

  1. They do not respond to non-emergency situations such as a dead battery or running out of fuel, and
  2. They normally do not have boats on the water during the week.

Local police: As an alternative, you could hail the police or water patrol on the radio if you know they are out there. If you call them by phone you’ll get a dispatcher who may or may not have rapid access to communications with the river patrols.

Above, an iCom M504 VHF radio installed at the helm. Note the position on the radio provided by the datalink GPS feed. The CG knows the boat from DSC information entered online, and in the event of a distress situation a menu comes up where you can dial-up and send the type of emergency via a distress menu.

It goes without saying that the first thing the USCG will do in the event of an automated distress signal will be to correlate the signal by trying to reach the vessel on the radio.


...Who are you going to call?

Not in distress:

Passing boaters: Unless you know them, how could you possibly call passing boaters on your cell phone? Since boaters with radios should monitor channel 16 on the VHF, you could make a call on ch. 16 and hope that somebody answers. I personally use the scan feature so that I can monitor both ch. 13 and ch. 16 with one radio.

Your friends: OK, you know their numbers. You pick up your new smart-phone and guess what--no signal! Advantage, VHF radio. At least with the VHF you still have the ability to contact other boaters or the USCG.

Your favorite tow service: Oops, we don’t currently have one in Louisville!

Local marine services: With a few exceptions, you’ll need your cell phone for this one.

Your best bet is a passing boater or to call a friend. Even better, take precautions to avoid fuel starvation or running your battery down unnecessarily.


4) Finally, you figured out that the reason your engine wouldn’t start is because it was still in gear when you turned off the key.

You’re underway and decide to go through a lock for a change of scenery. You need to call the lockmaster.

Cellphone: Works, but I’d still recommend the VHF. The lockmaster could be outside and does carry a handheld. Also, it would be the easiest way to catch him in between his conversations with towboat captains.

So Eric, what do you use?

I prefer a fixed-mount VHF radio at the helm, and I carry a handheld that comes in handy when I’m on the back deck or hop on a friend’s boat. I check the equipment every so often by noting the name of a passing vessel with binoculars, then hailing them for a radio check when they are a few miles away. I’ve also been known to place a hot-wings order at River’s Edge from about 5 miles away to check the radio, but that’s another story.

Above, a Uniden hand-held Marine VHF radio tuned to ch. 16.


How should I use my VHF?

In general, leave your radio on 16 to monitor for distress or hailing calls. As previously mentioned, I would also recommend that you listen to ch. 13 to monitor where the towboats and Belle of Louisville are going, for example. If somebody hails you on ch. 16, be prepared to switch channels (68 for boat-boat, or 21A for USCG).

There are other sources of information such as Chapmann’s that provide sample radio communications. Locking Procedures, by the way, are described in another article on this site.

How am I supposed to remember all this stuff?

You can’t, so why not grab a “PortKY River Card.” On it, you will find the mile markers and prominent landmarks along the river, as well as common VHF frequencies and important phone numbers. You’ll also find a reference that you or a helper can use to make a distress call in a worst-case situation. Visit the “Sponsors” page for a listing of stores that stock these cards.

Also, carry approved charts and do your best to always know your position. Radio procedures aren't all that difficult, so read about them and practice using your radio so that you'll know it works when you need it. Be familiar with your local resources so you don’t have to think about who to call.

A VHF radio is still considered the primary means of communication on the river, so don't leave home without it!

Above, the "Port KY River Cards," available at several local marine stores.


Above, a boater near Utica, IN in a pristine Sea Ray 230. This boater carries a handheld VHF that was given as a gift from his folks to keep the grandchildren safe.



Eric Grubb
Founder, Port KY
Licensed Master

Eric grew up around boats, trading summers on board his parents' Sea Rays for many man-hours of swabbing the decks. He grew up by the little town of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, overlooking the the Dashields Locks and Dam. He has traveled the Great Lakes, Lake Huron's North Channel, Gulf of Mexico and several rivers to include the Ohio, Allegheny, Monongahela, Kanawha, Mohawk (Erie Canal), Tennessee, Tombigbee, Black Warrior and Mobile Rivers.

As a commercial pilot, Eric flies jets and is a flight instructor. He has owned recreational boats ranging from PWCs to most recently, a flybridge convertible that he keeps in a Louisville marina (MM 590). You can also find him with his family on the "Escape Pod," an 18' fishing boat. His most memorable journey was aboard the J. S. Lewis, a 155' towboat in service since 1931.

Eric is a USCG Licensed Master with a Commerical Tow Assistance rating, and is a member of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Riverman and the Louisville Sail and Power Squadron. After moving to Louisville, he conceived the idea for Louisville's Port KY website while searching for information to help him become a safer and more knowledgable local boater. He has worked hard over the years to educate other boaters by promoting safety classes through Port KY and by hosting captain's classes and related events.


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