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.
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
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
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
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?
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:
- They do not respond to non-emergency
situations such as a dead battery or running
out of fuel, and
- 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
...Who are you
going to call?
Not in distress:
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!
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
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
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
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.
Founder, Port KY
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.