Do Washington State ferries monitor channel 16? Sort of…

Ask Bill Michael what he does for a living, and he’ll tell you that he hires and fires ferry captains for Washington State Ferries. Ask him what his meeting with a recent group of recreational sailors was all about and he’ll say this.

It was all about channel 16.

Michael, whose official duties as Port Captain include much more than personnel, was meeting with the Eagle Harbor Yacht Club, on Bainbridge Island. While other topics certainly came up, the one everyone wanted him to explain was why WSF never answers when you call them on 16.

If you have sailed these waters, or any waters, for that matter, you know that VHF channel 16 is the international hailing and distress frequency. Most recreational boaters know to monitor channel 16 while they are underway. But when you see a ferry bearing down on you and you’re not able to get out of the way for some reason, don’t call them on channel 16. They’re unlikely to hear you.

Michael revealed that WSF vessels have only just started carrying handheld VHF units that monitor channel 16. And those radios, he noted, may not be near the helmsperson. “If you called and no one answered, it’s because we didn’t hear you.”

Ferries do monitor two other VHF channels closely and continuously: 13, which is the “bridge to bridge” or inter-ship channel, and channel 14, which is the channel used by and devoted to Seattle’s Vessel Traffice Services (VTS). Seattle VTS controls and coordinates commercial traffic in Puget Sound south of the strait of Juan da Fuca. (North of there, in US waters, it’s VHF 05.)

You can reach that Puget Sound ferry on channel 13 or channel 14, and they will respond. It also follows that, if they end up sneaking up on you unawares, and blowing that dreaded five blast “immanent danger” horn, they likely tried to contact you on 13 or 14 and failed to do so.

The moral of the story is simple: When you are in Puget Sound waters, make sure that your onboard VHF scans channels 13 and 14, as well as 16.

The crowd in attendance was taken aback. Not a few found this a sorry state of affairs, and wanted to know why it could not be remedied. The short answer was money, and the lack therof.

The crowd’s surprise makes sense. As recreational boaters, we have grown used to calling our friends up on channel 16. Most of us then switch to a working channel for a conversation. Those of us who neglect to do so are informed by the Coast Guard (or some wiseacre on another recreational vessel) that they should take their conversation elsewhere. It seems natural that we would hail any other vessel on 16 first.

But commercial traffic needs to operate differently. The masters and pilots of those vessels use 13 and 14 only for  quick conversations about the safe passage of their vessel. Channel 14 is also recorded by VTS. A collision of commercial traffic is likely to be reviewed very closely by any number of interested parties in the ensuing legal fracas.

Michael fielded a number of follow-up questions, some of them colored by a range of peeved to outraged tonalities, until one questioner asked why those bicycles always unloaded first, given that they slowed down the car traffic after them. He hesitated, surveyed the crowd on how many bicyclists were in the audience, and, finding very few, responded:

“So, the thing about channel 16 is–“

This post was originally published on Three Sheets contributor Stuart Scandron-Wattles’ blog On Board: On sailing the Salish. Go here to read more. 


9 Responses to Do Washington State ferries monitor channel 16? Sort of…

  1. Kris July 17, 2018 at 9:54 am #

    Regulations or requirements for commercial traffic to monitor 16 aside, I still think it’s a little odd, perhaps even lazy that a large ferry operator wouldn’t monitor a key station like 16 or think to call you on 16 if you’re in the way… The majority of recreational boaters, myself included, monitor 16 and it is among the primary ways one boat connects with another. It’s also for distress – does that mean that WSF doesn’t respond to distress calls? I’m from BC and know for a fact that BC Ferries monitors 16. They will respond to you or call you if they need to and respond to and participate in rescue efforts for distress calls.

  2. Ftredrick Roswold July 16, 2018 at 7:56 pm #

    Hey Three Sheets, stop throwing softballs, don’t let these guys off the hook so easily.

    Bill Michael’s answer by saying that it was about money is just BS. A VHF set (not a handheld) is less than $200 and the installation should be couple of hours by one of the ferry systems techs.

    The law is clear: The exemption for vessels transiting the VTS is limited, not a blanket exemption, and the ferries should monitor VHF CH 16. They don’t because they don’t like to hear all the chatter.

    FCC 47 CFR 80.148, 80.310, NTIA Manual, ITU RR 31.18, 52.244
    Radio Watchkeeping Regulations
    In general, any vessel equipped with a VHF marine radiotelephone (whether voluntarily or required to) must maintain a watch on channel 16 (156.800 MHz) whenever the radiotelephone is not being used to communicate.

    Vessels must also maintain a watch on the designated Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) frequency, in lieu of maintaining watch on channel 16, while transiting within a VTS area.

  3. Rick July 11, 2018 at 5:26 pm #

    Vessels operating within a Vessel Traffic System are exempt by statute from the requirement to monitor 16. Pretty much everything from Tacoma heading north is VTS.

    Personally, I hardly ever monitor 16. I’m much more concerned about the ferries, tugs and ships so I monitor 13, 14, 5 and 11, as well as 22a to catch any Coast Guard notifications.

    It seems to me the unnecessary chatter on 16 ( anyone who’s monitored 16 on busy weekend knows this) could be a distraction from the job at hand for a Captain of a large commercial vessel.

    • Ftredrick Roswold July 16, 2018 at 8:00 pm #

      That’s BS Rick, the Ferries go cross sound, only a short part of their route is actually within the VTS. The law does not state that they are exempt anywhere that a VTS system is somewhere nearby. They need to monitor VHF Ch 16 because that is where the emergency calls from civilian vessels will come in.

      • Rick July 18, 2018 at 8:01 am #

        You are talking about the Traffic Separation Lanes, which are a part of a VTS. If you are interested you might take a look at the link here which explains the area covered by VTS.

  4. Dave Lindschmidt July 11, 2018 at 5:15 pm #

    Whenever I am in transit along the Duwamish I monitor channels 13 & 16. Once I am in Elliot Bay I monitor channels 14 & 16. The information shared between commercial traffic and Seattle Traffic is a great help. By monitoring the channels I am easily able to give freighter traffic, tugs with or without tow and wsf a wide berth. I learned about utilizing channel fourteen from a tug boat skipper.
    I’ve always found the professionals to be courteous.

  5. Jay July 11, 2018 at 12:28 pm #

    Radio Watchkeeping Regulations
    In general, any vessel equipped with a VHF marine radiotelephone (whether voluntarily or required to) must maintain a watch on channel 16 (156.800 MHz) whenever the radiotelephone is not being used to communicate.

    Source: FCC 47 CFR §§ 80.148, 80.310, NTIA Manual, ITU RR 31.18, 52.244

    • Scott Wilson July 11, 2018 at 2:31 pm #

      Your citation explains exactly why ferries here are exempted from that rule, though.

  6. Dana Brooks July 11, 2018 at 12:05 pm #

    Great info all the yacht clubs and recreational boaters should have.

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