A VHF radio is not required safety equipment on a pleasure craft, however, you would be foolish not to have a VHF radio installed on your sailboat if you intend on sailing on any large sized bodies of water.
A VHF radio is your lifeline to contact the Coast Guard or other boaters in distress or urgent situations or to offer assistance. It also keeps you informed of hazards to navigation and weather and sea conditions.
You may use your VHF marine radio for:
- distress, urgent and safety messages;
- operational messages and;
- business messages.
In Canada any operator of a VHF, MF or SSB radio must have a Radio Operators Certificate – Maritime (ROC-M). See: Sailing Lessons – ROC-M
It is important that you and any of your crew or passengers be instructed in the proper use of the VHF radio in emergent situations.
Distress calls are made on Channel 16 and take priority over all other radio transmissions. If you hear a distress call, maintain radio silence unless you are able to offer assistance or until the distress situation has ended. Only make a distress call when:
- your are threatened by grave and imminent danger and require immediate assistance or
- when you are aware of another vessel that is threatened by grave and imminent danger and requires immediate assistance.
Running out of gas and requiring a tow is not a distress call situation. Hitting a rock, putting a hole in the hull and taking on water is a distress call situation.
Making a distress call:
- if the vessel is equipped with a DSC radio, activate the DSC distress alarm;
- turn to channel 16 and make the following call (we will assume that the vessel in distress is named White Orchid)
- say Mayday 3 times
- Say “This is” – your vessel name 3 times
- say Mayday one more time along with your vessel name
- provide your location as accurately as possible
- state the nature of the distress – “I have struck a rock an am taking on water.”
- provide a description of your vessel – “Three Six foot Bavaria sailboat – white with blue stripe.”
- state the number of persons on board and the nature of any injuries – “We have 2 adults and 2 children aboard. No injuries.”
- any other relevant information – “We all have lifejackets on and we have an inflatable raft ready if we need to abandon ship.”
- the name of the vessel
- the word “over”
- repeat the distress call on Channel 16 with sufficient time between transmissions to allow another vessel to respond. Large vessels are not required to monitor Channel 16. If after making numerous repeat distress calls on Channel 16, switch to other channels – like Channel 22A (Coast Guard), 09 (alternative hailing channel), 06 (safety channel) or 13 (navigational channel)
“Mayday Mayday Mayday This is White Orchid, White Orchid, White Orchid Mayday White Orchid Our position is 12 miles West of Greys Pt. Latitude 49° 12.23′ N Longitude 123° 30.00′ W We have struck a deadhead. We have a hole in the hull and we are taking on water. We have 3 adults on board. One adult is suffering from hypothermia. We are a three five foot Hunter sailboat – white in color. We have lifejackets. We do not have a life raft. We have 6 parachute flares. We are preparing to abandon ship. White Orchid Over”
When you hear a distress call and if you are in the vicinity of the distressed vessel and if you are able to offer assistance without putting your own vessel and crew in jeopardy, then you should alter course and head towards the distressed vessel. If within range, the Coast Guard will respond to a Mayday call so do not transmit, wait to see if the Coast Guard responds. If the Coast Guard does not respond or if the Coast Guard responds and asks for assistance from vessels in the area, then you respond. If you hear a distress call and if the Coast Guard does not respond and no other vessels respond and if you are unable to offer assistance, you should offer to transmit a Mayday Relay. This will increase the range of the distress call and hopefully reach the Coast Guard or another vessel that is able to offer assistance.
Making a Mayday Relay call: (vessel in distress is White Orchid – vessel making the Mayday Relay is Tenacious)
“Mayday Relay, Mayday Relay, Mayday Relay This is Tenacious, Tenacious, Tenacious Mayday White Orchid White Orchid is located 12 miles West of Greys Pt. Latitude 49° 12.23′ N Longitude 123° 30.00′ W They have struck a deadhead, have a hole in the hull and they are taking on water. They have 3 adults on board. One adult is suffering from hypothermia. White Orchid is a three five foot Hunter sailboat – white in color. They have lifejackets. They do not have a life raft. They have 6 parachute flares. They are preparing to abandon ship. Tenacious Over”
Responding to a distress call: You have received a distress call and are able to offer assistance. The vessel in distress is White Orchid and the vessel offering assistance is Tenacious.
“Mayday White Orchid, White Orchid, White Orchid This is Tenacious, Tenacious, Tenacious Received Mayday I am 2 miles South from your location and will be proceeding to your location to offer assistance. ETA approximately two five minutes. Tenacious Over”
Imposing radio silence during a distress call: Sometimes other radio operators are not aware that distress communication is in progress and continue with regular radio transmissions. To notify all parties that distress communications are in progress and to maintain radio silence, transmit the following (usually the Coast Guard will make this kind of transmission).
“Mayday All Stations, All Stations, All Stations This is Vancouver Coast Guard, Vancouver Coast Guard, Vancouver Coast Guard Seelonce Distress Distress traffic in progress – stop transmitting. Vancouver Coast Guard Out”
Cancellation of a radio distress: Once a rescue has been taken place and the distress situation no longer exists, it is important to notify other vessels that they can resume normal radio transmission. Typically the Coast Guard will make the following transmission.
“Mayday All Stations, All Stations, All Stations This is Vancouver Coast Guard, Vancouver Coast Guard, Vancouver Coast Guard Time 161323P (16th day of the month @ 13:23 Pacific Time)
Seelonce Feenee The vessel White Orchid has sunk. All passengers have been rescued and are being transported to Sydney Harbor Vancouver Coast Guard Out”
Distress Calls – things to remember:
- the controlling station is always the station making the distress call unless control has been assumed by another party. If the Coast Guard is involved then typically the Coast Guard will assume control of the distress communication;
- if you are making a distress call, try and remain calm – no one can help you if they cannot understand you;
- it is important that you give out your location immediately and accurately in case you lose radio contact – no one can help you if they cannot find you. It is a good idea to write down your location if your are using Lat. & Long. and always double check your co-ordinates;
- if you hear a distress call you are required by maritime law to offer assistance provided you do not put yourself, your crew or vessel in serious risk;
- every transmission in a distress communication situation begins with the word “Mayday”. This advises other users of an ongoing distress situation and not to transmit;
- record any distress call in your radio log whether you become involved or not. If you are asked to assist, record every message received and transmitted in your radio log;
- if offering assistance, the good Samaritan rule protects you from legal liability – (Good Samaritan doctrine“, a volunteer coming to the aid of another was relieved of liability for harm caused through his fault or negligence to the party assisted, as long as the helper did not act recklessly or rashly.)
Urgent Call Urgent calls are made on Channel 16 and take priority over all calls except distress calls. Urgent calls are made concerning the safety of a vessel or the safety of a person where assistance is required but where the situation is not one of grave and imminent danger. The words indicating an urgent situation are “Pan Pan” spoken three times. A good example of an urgent call is where is a vessel has run out of fuel, is drifting towards shore and needs a tow. The situation is not one of immediate ‘grave and imminent danger’ but there is some urgency as the vessel is drifting towards the shore.
Another example is where a vessel has not returned to harbor and the Coast Guard transmits a “Pan Pan” to keep a watch for the missing vessel.
“Pan Pan, Pan Pan, Pan Pan All stations, all stations, all stations This White Orchid, White Orchid, White Orchid Our position is 12 miles West of Greys Pt. Latitude 49° 12.23′ N Longitude 123° 30.00′ W We have run out of fuel and require a tow to the nearest marina. White Orhcid Over”Safety Call
Safety transmissions take priority over all other calls except distress or urgent calls. Safety messages are initiated with the words Securite´, spoken 3 times on Channel 16 with the actual message being transmitted on Channel 06 (channel for safety messages). Typical safety messages include notification of hazards to navigation – like a barge adrift.
On Channel 16: “Securite´, Securite´, Securite´ All stations, all stations, all stations This is White Orchid, White Orchid, White Orchid Safety message to follow on Channel 06 regarding the area 12 miles West of Greys Point White Orchid Out” On Channel 06: “Securite´, Securite´, Securite´ All stations, all stations, all stations This is White Orchid, White Orchid, White Orchid There is a deadhead floating 12 miles West of Greys Point at Latitude 49° 12.23′ N Longitude 123° 30.00′ W This is a hazard to navigation and should be avoided. Returning to channel 16. White Orchid Out”
Weather VHF radios also come with ten weather channels designated as WX1. WX2 up to and including WX10. In Canada, through Environment Canada’s Weather Service, and in the U.S. through the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), channels WX1 through and including WX7 are used for continuous weather broadcasts providing current conditions (including wind, waves, swells), forecasts, and severe weather watches and warnings. Always check to see which weather channels are used for your particular area.
In the U.S. you do not need an operators license to use a VHF Radio (Marine). In Canada anyone using a VHF Radio (Maritime) must have a Restricted Operators Certificate (Maritime) – ROC(M) – issued by an accredited agency under the authority of Industry Canada – Spectrum Management, a department of the Government of Canada. In order to obtain a Restricted Operators Certificate (Maritime) you must successfully complete a radio operators course such as the one offered by the Canadian Power and Sail (CPS) organization.
Ship Station License – VHF Radio
In the U.S. and Canada, non-commercial (i.e. pleasure craft) watercraft meet the station license exemption requirements and do not require a ship station license. Vessels that do have a radio station license will be assigned call signs. A vessel with a name and call sign identify itself by using both – Pacific Princess AV7661. You are not allowed to use a VHF radio on land unless you have obtained a land based station license. (The use of a handheld VHF radio for communication with your boat while ashore is technically in contravention of U.S. and Canadian regulations, however, given the temporary nature of the communications, no enforcement is sought.)
Prohibited Uses Do not use your VHF marine radio for:
- making false distress calls;
- profane or offensive language;
- causing interference or superfluous transmissions (idle chit chat);
- establishing a land-based station.
Always read the VHF radio manual before using a new radio. This help you understand how to use the radio and take full advantage of the radio’s features.
When transmitting on your VHF radio, always speak clearly and do not rush your words. Do not shout – shouting will only distort your voice. Adjust the squelch so that have just quieted the sound of static.
In all radio communications, one station becomes the controlling station. The controlling station decides procedural matters – what channel to us etc.
In distress call situations, the controlling station is the vessel making the distress call, unless control has been assumed by the Coast Guard.
In all other ship to shore communications, the controlling station is the shore based station. In all other ship to ship radio communications, the controlling station is the station being called.
‘White Orchid’ calls ‘Tenacious’ on Channel 16. ‘Tenacious’ responds and tells ‘White Orchid’ to change to Channel 71. ‘Tenacious’ then calls ‘White Orchid’ on Channel 71. ‘Tenacious’ is the controlling station.
Never say the name of the station you are calling more than 3 times. Use balanced calling – if you say the name of the station you are calling twice, say your own station name twice.
Overheard communication on the VHF radio, unless directed to ‘All Stations’, is considered privileged and confidential information and may not be repeated except in cases of emergency.
Use the internationally recognized phonetic alphabet for isolated letters, groups of letters, to spell out a word or where communication is difficult.
When transmitting numbers say each number separately – 267 is transmitted as Two Six Seven. If letters follow the number, as in a call sign, 267AB becomes Two Six Seven Alpha Bravo.
If transmitting a dollar amount, such as $543.23, this is transmitted as Dollars Five Four Three Decimal Two Three. When communicating time always use the 24 hour clock.
If off shore in international waters use Universal Time (UTC).
If communicating date and time such as July 15th @ 1:30 pm, PDT (Pacific Daylight Time), this would be transmitted as follows: 151330P
The first two numbers indicate the day of the month (15th), the next four numbers indicate time using a 24 hour clock and P is the abbreviation for Pacific Daylight (or Standard) Time.
Adjust your signal strength for the appropriate range. If you are in a harbor talking to a marina, set your radio for 1 Watt.
If you are in open ocean set your radio for maximum range – 25 Watts. VHF radio signals travel in a straight line. This means that a higher placed antenna will give you a greater range. Land based stations taking advantage of geographical features (high cliffs) can transmit as far as 20 to 25 miles. Ship to ship transmissions have a range of about 10 to 15 miles. Handheld VHF radios have a range of about 5 miles. Radio Checks
It is important to always confirm that your radio is working. You may be able to receive but that does not mean that you can transmit – often the result of a faulty microphone wire. Call the Coast Guard on one of the Coast Guard channels for a radio check – do not use Channel 16 for radio checks. Since the Coast Guard monitors more than one channel, always indicate what channel you are calling on.
In the U.S. some will say that you are not to call the Coast Guard for radio checks. This is incorrect, the U.S. Coast Guard does allow radio checks: http://www.navcen.uscg.gov/marcomms/boater.htm
There is number scale for the degree of readability (quality of reception).
1 = Bad 2 = Poor 3 = Fair 4 = Good 5 = Excellent
“Halifax Coast Guard, Halifax Coast Guard This is White Orchid, White Orchid Requesting a radio check on Channel 22A White Orchid Over” “White Orchid This is Halifax Coast Guard Read you at a 4. Halifax Coast Guard Out”
VHF Channel Usage VHF channel usage will vary from region to region and from country to country. When sailing in unfamiliar waters, check with the Coast Guard, a local marina or other boaters for details of channel usage.
There are some differences in frequencies between the channels used in International waters, Canadian waters and U.S. waters. Most VHF radios sold in North America will allow you to switch between the three regions.
In Canada, VHF designated channels can be found at Industry Canada – Spectrum Managements website:http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/smt-gst.nsf/eng/sf01011.html#sect81
The following is a brief list of common channels used in Canada:
All = all locations
PC= Pacific Coast
EC = East Coast
AC= Atlantic Coast
|Notes and Remarks
|Search and rescue – ship to aircraft. Safety messages.
|Maritime support – aircraft and helicopters. In U.S. used as a secondary hailing channel.
|Bridge to bridge navigational traffic
|International Distress, Safety and Calling
|21B – WX8
|Continuous Marine Broadcast service
|Communication between Coast Guard and non-Coast Guard stations.
|Marinas and yacht clubs
|Digital Selective Calling (DSC) for Distress, Safety and Calling
|Marinas and yacht clubs -East Coast and Lake Winnipeg
In the U.S., VHF designated channels can be found at the U.S.C.G. website: http://www.navcen.uscg.gov/marcomms/vhf.htm
The following is a brief list of common channels used in the United States:
|Nature of Use
|Boater calling – commercial and non-commercial
|Intership Navigation Safety – vessels over 20 meters in length maintain a listening watch on this channel in U.S. waters
|International Distress, Safety and Calling. USCG and most coastal stations maintain a listening watch on this channel.
|USCG liason and maritime safety information broadcasts
|24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 84, 85, 86, 87
|Public Correspondence – Marine Operator
|Digital Selective Calling – voice communications are not allowed
|Non-commercial – intership only
(DSC) Digital Selective Calling DSC radios are part of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) and use Channel 70 to transmit digital messages.
No voice communication is allowed on Channel 70. Each DSC radio requires it’s own unique Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number.
Sometimes retailers will provide a MMSI number at the time of sale but in most cases you will have to apply for a MMSI number.
In Canada, for pleasure craft, contact Industry Canada – Spectrum Management and use Annex A to apply for your MMSI number, see: http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/smt-gst.nsf/eng/sf08139.html
In the U.S., you can apply for a MMSI number through Boat U.S. http://www.boatus.com/mmsi/MMSI.txt , U.S. Power Squadron http://www.usps.org/php/mmsi/home.php or through Sea Tow https://secure.seatow.com/boating_safety/mmsi/mmsiRegister.asp
Your MMSI number provides information about you, your boat and your emergency contacts. If you move your DSC radio to a different boat, or if your contact or emergency contact information changes, make sure you update your MMSI information.
If you are a member of a fleet, your MMSI number will begin with a 0. If you are a land based station, your MMSI number will begin with 00.
The first 3 numbers (or the first 3 numbers after fleet or shore based designation) will indicate the country of MMSI registration. In Canada, MMSI numbers currently start with 316. In the U.S., MMSI numbers currently start with 303, 338, 388, 367, 368 or 369. MMSI numbers are like telephone numbers.
If you know another vessels MMSI number, you can send a digital message directly to that vessel or a group of vessels without it going to any outside party. DSC radios give you options – distress call, urgent call, safety call or routine calls.
You select the nature of your call, the MMSI number of a specific vessel, if it is not a general call, and the Channel you wish to make verbal contact on. The digital message is sent on ‘Channel 70, the recipients radio will sound a noise indicating that a message has been received.
The recipient sends a digital acknowledgement that the message has been received and turns to the channel selected for voice communication.
The vessel initiating the call receives the digital acknowledgment that his message is received and then turns to the channel selected for voice communication. The two parties then connect via voice on the channel selected.
DSC Distress Call
Using a VHF radio without DSC you switch your radio to Channel 16 and make a distress in the manner we have already discussed. If you are using a VHF radio with DSC you initiate your distress call by activating the DSC distress signal alarm. The alarm button (usually red) has a protective cover that must first be lifted before pushing the alarm. To active the DSC alarm you must hold the alarm button down for 5 seconds. The radio should emit a beeping sound indicating each second – 5 beeps indicates an elapsed time of 5 seconds. The protective cover and requirement of holding the alarm button down for 5 seconds prevents accidental distress signals from being made.
Once the DSC alarm is activated, a digital message is sent on Channel 70. Any station within range having a DSC VHF radio will hear the distress call alarm – a warbling sound. All DSC radios automatically monitor Channel 70.
Upon hearing the DSC distress alarm, a radio operator will see a digital message on the radio’s monitor. The message will carry the distress vessel’s MMSI number, particulars of the vessel (type of vessel) and the nature of the distress.
One great advantage to using a DSC radio is that DSC radios can be used in conjunction with the onboard GPS so that when a DSC distress call is made, it will automatically provide the distress vessels location.
A radio operator receiving a DSC distress call could respond to the DSC distress call by activating the digital response indicating that the Mayday has been received. This however, would cancel the DSC distress signal. Therefore, the best course of action for a radio operator receiving a DSC distress call is to let the DSC distress signal continue and wait to see the Coast Guard responds.
If the Coast Guard does not respond, attempt to raise the vessel in distress and the Coast Guard on Channel 16. Do not digitally acknowledge receipt and thereby cancel the DSC distress call on Channel 70.
When a vessel in distress activates their DSC distress call, their radio should automatically switch to Channel 16 where they can then send a verbal distress call – Mayday. Not all vessels carry DSC radios and therefore it is very important to send the standard Mayday call on Channel 16 in addition to the digital distress signal sent on Channel 70.