The Basics of Marine Radio Use and Emergencies

Sep 30, 2022Safety

Marine Communications

Can you Hear Me?
Cell Phone vs. VHF Radio
Having a cell phone on board allows you to keep in touch with land-based contacts and businesses easily. They are very convenient but in some situations they shouldn’t be used in place of a very high frequency (VHF) radio, the benefits of which we’ll address shortly. Here are some things to consider regarding cell-phones.

Cell Phone

Cell phones are less reliable on the water. Most are not water resistant, and their range is relatively short due to the proximity of land based towers and repeaters.
Range is further complicated by the fact that the majority of cell antenna/stations are placed and oriented with land-based use in mind, so the distance offshore that a vessel can remain in contact is frequently shorter.
A cell phone won’t allow you to “broadcast” to several boaters at a time which is important in a true emergency.

VHF Radio
Keep aware of your surrounding while talking on the radio.

Why a VHF Radio is Preferred
Very High Frequency (VHF) marine-band radios have been around for many years and remain the primary means of communication for vessels throughout the United States. VHF radios should be your “go-to” device in an emergency unless you are practically shouting distance from shore. The main uses of a VHF radio are:

To use your VHF, turn it on and pick a channel, set the squelch to the point where you don’t hear any white noise, and begin talking. Things to remember when you are on the radio:

Monitor channel 16 when you are not actively in conversation with someone else. While not required for recreational boaters, it is an unwritten rule for radio users.

Don’t tie up channel 16 or channel 9. If you are talking with someone, switch to a working channel so you are not keeping others from using channel 16 or 9. In some instances, the Coast Guard may even order you to switch channels if you are talking excessively on 16 or 9. A VHF radio is not a telephone. When you use your VHF, everyone tuned to that station in the area can hear you! Watch your language, and try to keep your conversations short and to the point so that others may use the channel.

It is unlawful to intentionally transmit a false distress alert, or intentionally transmit a false alert without taking steps to cancel that alert.

VHF Marine Radio Channels
Most VHF radios on the market today have in excess of twenty-five usable channels. Aside from the U.S. channels there are also International and Canadian channels, all of which come standard with many of the newer units on the market. You won’t be using the vast majority of channels on your VHF. However, channel 16 on your VHF radio is probably the most important.

Channel 16 is designated as the national distress, safety and calling frequency. All vessels should monitor this channel while underway.

When hailing other boats for routine communication, you’ll need to hail them on 16 or 09, and then move to an available working channel, usually 68, 69, 71 or 72. Always remember to check for channels authorized for use in your area as well as any local restrictions. Also remember to be clear with the information you are giving, it is easy to be miss understood!

Clear communication is a Must!

Distress calling and SAFETY

Ship to shore communications
Navigation (vessels to bridges, etc.)
Marine operator to place calls to shore
NOAA Weather Broadcasts
For reliable on-the-water communications, we recommend using either hand-held or fixed-mount VHF radios. If you experience engine failure, a storm disables you, or you find yourself in a true emergency, a VHF radio can be your lifeline to help. In Coast Guard jurisdictions, VHFs are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For extra assurance, the USCG, most TowBoatU.S. and Vessel Assist towers can locate your boat by tracking your VHF signal, but they can’t do that with a cell phone.

Auto Distress Button

Calling for Help?

In emergency situations, there are certain procedures to follow to ensure prompt response to your need for help. There are three phrases that you might hear on a VHF radio, and they all relate to safety.
In emergency situations, there are certain procedures to follow to ensure prompt response to your need for help. There are three phrases that you might hear on a VHF radio, and they all relate to safety.

MAYDAY – distress signal, requires the most urgent response. This signal is only to be used when a person, or boat is threatened by grave or imminent danger, and requires assistance

PAN-PAN – (pronounced pahn-pahn) used to signal urgent information, like when someone has fallen overboard, or a boat is drifting into shore or a busy shipping channel. If your emergency isn’t immediately life threatening, say Pan-Pan instead of Mayday, for example if you have a controllable leak, and you want help standing by in case it gets worse.

SECURITE – (pronounced sea-cur-i-tay) is the safety signal. This is used to transmit information about the safety of navigation. For instance, if a large commercial vessel is coming through a narrow channel, this signal would be used. Can also be used to transmit weather information, such as when a powerful storm system is approaching.

Securite Tow Signal

There is a “procedure” for sending out a distress call, but all you really need to know is to turn your VHF to Channel 16 and high power, key the mike by pressing the talk button, and say one of the three phrases three times, along with position and situation information. Here’s a hypothetical mayday from the small fishing boat, Tambourine:

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is the Tambourine. Our position is 24:33′ north and 74:56′ west and we are sinking.”

  • Try to speak slowly and clearly, and repeat this information three times. The essential information is Mayday, your position, and your emergency. If you have time, describe your boat and how many are aboard:

“We are a 23 foot Mako, green hull, white decks, with two adults and two children aboard.”

  • If someone is injured, mention that. If you don’t get an immediate response keep periodically sending out a Mayday broadcast as long as the radio will function, taking care to give your position with every transmission. If time permits, scan through the other channels and interrupt any radio traffic you hear with your Mayday broadcast. If you don’t hear traffic, try transmitting on Coast Guard Channel 22A.