Over the last few months New Zealand has seen a spate of boaties going out unprepared and getting themselves in trouble. Often this leads to fatalities and many hours of searching by Coastguard and Police.


A common theme is the lack of communication and safety equipment which resounds through each of the serious reports. Each of these could have been easily avoided, in most cases by carrying a suitable VHF Radio and knowing how to use it.


The term “VHF” Radio refers to the frequencies used – Very High Frequencies – which are between 156 Megahertz and 162 Megahertz. These frequencies are split up into about 50 channels for easy use and their actual frequencies are rarely referred to.


The channels can be split into two different types – Simplex and Duplex.


Simplex channels transmit and receive on the same frequency - this is simple ship to ship communication. Channel 16 is an example of a Simplex channel, which all boaties should keep a watch on as it is also the emergency channel.

Duplex channels transmit on a different frequency to the receive frequency - With Duplex comms, you are not communicating directly with another boat, you are actually communicating with a repeater. Most Coastguard channels are duplex, including 83, the coastguard frequency here in Tauranga. Their repeater is located on the Kaimai ranges, so even if you are 100M away from the coastguard building at Sulphur Point, your transmission actually goes to the Kaimais, through the repeater and back down another frequency to their offices. I should also note that Coastguard and Maritime radio also keep watch on channel 16.


Since with Duplex channels you are only communicating with a repeater station, if you are out of range of that particular repeater, then you will not be able to use that channel to communicate with anyone, even if they are close to where you are. In this case you will need to switch to a simplex channel for better chatting. Conversely, if your mate is way down the coast, but there is a repeater between you, use a duplex frequency to contact them (so long as it's ok with the repeater owner!)

Some radios (most noticeably the Uniden UM380 Solara) are shipped with USA frequencies enabled, and you will need to change to International frequencies to get all correct duplex channels here in New Zealand. On some radios this is changed through a button with U/I/C on it (USA, International, Canadian). Whatever marine VHF radio you have, channel 16 will always be the correct frequency.


Other problems we commonly strike are usually related to the antenna. With their positions outside and in the weather, we commonly get issues with antenna failure, especially the ones which screw down onto the base. Your radio is only as good as your antenna, if you skimp on the antenna it will come back to bite you, normally when you need it most.


Another common misconception is that the antenna cable needs to be a certain length – this is incorrect, so long as the cable between the radio and antenna is longer than about 1 meter, any length will be fine.

Vessel mounted radios start out at about $349 for a good quality unit and antenna. This is what we would recommend for anyone going further than Karewa or this side of Motiti island. If you're just in the harbour, then a cheaper, hand held radio may meet your needs, which starts at just under $150.

Lastly – If you are going out on the water this summer, make sure you get in touch with the Coastguard, and make sure you are doing it legally and SAFELY. They run regular courses for radio licenses and safe boating, which are a small investment to keep the family safe.