BILLíS MARINE RADIO AND OBSERVATION TOPICS
Last updated October 29, 2016
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This page requires layout revision but the information is current in the Fall of 2016. I expect to add information on the Canadian Coast Guard Radio system and as well other VTS zones in the Maritimes over the winter.
Coastal and harbour shipping almost entirely uses the VHF Marine Band for communications between ships and as well with shore facilities. This band consists internationally of 57 channels numbered 1 to 28 and 60 to 88, but not all of these are used in Canadian waters. I intend to at some point describe this band in detail but for the present, check my list of commonly-used channels in the Halifax area.
Communications on board ships in order to conduct their own operations may be on the lesser-known Marine UHF Band which is charted below.
There may be some residual use of the old MF 2 MHz band using SSB. This who are familiar with my own radio history will know of my extensive background of listening on that band in the 1960's and 70's. You will still hear Halifax Coast Guard Radio broadcasting on 2749 kHz, and it continues to monitor 2182 kHz, the 2 MHz international calling and emergency frequency. I myself do not at all listen on this band any longer, and such listening on bands below VHF is not generally considered to be part of scanning. At present I am not in any way further discussing this band on my site but may do so in the future.
† VHF Channels in frequent use in the harbour and in the adjoining area.
Note that many scanners do allow you to simply press one button and automatically scan the complete Marine Band, but most scanning enthusiasts prefer to input the specific channels wanted.
CANADIAN UHF MARINE BAND
The following frequencies are authorized for use onboard ships in Canadian waters for communications within the ship. Power is restricted to 5 watts and is Simplex. Note that while these are the authorized frequencies, there are many different ships of various nationalities and levels of adherence to rules and therefore you may hear other 400 MHz UHF frequencies in use, including FRS/GMRS. You may also hear other frequency bands in use. Note that the Canadian authorized frequencies clash with the American GMRS band usage, i.e. some of these frequencies are part of GMRS in the USA.
Halifax Vessel Traffic Management System ("Halifax Traffic")
Many busy marine areas around the world are more regulated than the open ocean areas. These areas might be harbours or narrow bodies of water where it is crucial to minimize the chance of collisions. In our region there are Vessel Traffic Management Systems (commonly abbreviated to VTS) in the following areas:
Fundy Traffic, centering on Saint John but covering the entire Bay of Fundy
Northumberland Traffic, covering the Strait, as well as Charlottetown and including the Confederation Bridge
Strait of Canso Traffic, covering the eastern and western approaches to the strait, and the strait itself
Halifax Traffic which is described in more detail here.
Canadian VTS operations are co-located with Coast Guard Radio Stations, and in today's world might be situated considerable distance from the areas being managed. VTS is not control in the sense that an Air Traffic Control centre or tower gives definitive bearings or speed commands. It is more of an advisory system, with decision power remaining in the master's hands.
The Halifax Traffic system is based on three surveillance radar stations at Shannon Hill (for Bedford Basin and the area between the bridges)Georges Island (for the main inner harbour area) and Chebucto Head (for the outer harbour beyond Maugher's Beach, and the harbour approaches). All large ships participate in the system, whereas smaller vessels including many recreational craft, fishing vessels and work boats do not, but may if they wish). Participating vessels communicate on VHF with the operator at Halifax Traffic. The outer area is on Channel 14, and the inner area is on Channel 12. Due to the relatively busy conditions in the inner harbour, Channel 12 is the more active of the two, and is the primary channel to have in your scanner to assist with your observations. The system also consists of laid-out pathways on the water that ships should follow. This includes various traffic lanes in the approaches to the harbour out in open water. These lanes are intended both for avoidance of shoals and other natural dangers, but also to ensure separation of vessels from each other.
When a foreign ship is approaching Halifax it will already have sent word through its local agent that it will be arriving and approximately when. The Port Authority ship movements calendar will show you what is upcoming. As the arriving ship nears the Halifax harbour outer approaches it normal calls Halifax Pilots on Channel 23. Here in Halifax this channel is configured in an unusual manner, as the ship's signal is repeated or in effect amplified so that you as a scanner listener will get the benefit of the professional antenna and receiver and hear the ship even though it may be well out to sea. The pilot dispatcher, who is working for the Atlantic Pilotage Authority, will coordinate the correct ETA for the pilot boarding location situated just off Chebucto Head. Details of speed and side of the ship to be used are left to the next stage. The incoming ship will already have the details of the VTS lanes, as they are described in Radio Aids to Marine Navigation (RAMN) and other publications and depicted on the charts that the ship is required to carry.
The pilot dispatcher will have arranged for the pilot to be at the pilot boarding station at the proper time. The pilot is taken to that location on the pilot boat. There are two pilot boats in Halifax. The primary one is named Chebucto Pilot and is based along the waterfront. The pilot boat on air is normally simply referred to as "Pilot Boat" so as to keep it simple for the foreign personnel. There is a backup boat also stationed in Halifax, though it is is possible that which one it is at any time can vary due to rotations around the region.
As the incoming ship enters the designated lane out at the approaches it will contact Halifax Traffic on Channel 14. Occasionally you will hear them call on Channel 16, if they have misunderstood what is the correct initial contact channel. At that time the Halifax Traffic operator and the ships officers will reaffirm the ETA to the pilot boarding station, and details will be passed re speed and the side of the ship on which the boarding ladder will be rigged, which is based on wind and swell direction.
Once the pilot is boarded they take over practical management of the ship, but the master remains legally in control. Canadian ships generally do not require a pilot and the master is on her or his own.
The ship or rather the personnel on it remain on the VTS channel but will have another radio still on Channel 16 and perhaps even more on other channels. There are a number of calling-in points at which the ship must report it is passing by. Once passing our of the approaches and into the outer harbour itself, the ship will be told to change to Channel 12. Many smaller vessels such as the ferries operate only in the inner harbour and therefore are always on Channel 12.
Here is an official diagram from RAMN showing the Halifax system:
In the inner harbour vessels may also be on other channels. The harbour tugs usually operate on Channel 7 and you will hear them talking amongst themselves or with the pilot of the ship they are assisting on this channel.
Note that even our own naval ships adhere to the VTS system and operate on Channels 12 and 14, but they also use Channel 10 in the dockyard area for movements such as docking and moving from one berth to another. In these areas the Queen's Harbour Master (QHM) has authority over naval vessels and therefore you will commonly hear traffic between naval ships (and naval auxiliary ships) and QHM.