your VHF radio is Sooooo Important!
And why knowing how to use it,
is more important!
By Wayne Spivak
National Press Corps
National Marketing & Public Affairs Department
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary
On 11 May 1993, two vessels that were in the same
general area (the waters off Fan Island, Porcher Peninsula,
British Columbia.) transmitted MAYDAY messages at about the
same time. The message, as received, read: "MAYDAY MAYDAY
... going down." The other message read: "MAYDAY MAYDAY
we're going down."
Due to the proximity of the vessels, and the almost
identical messages issued, both vessels were lost. The messages
were transmitted on their VHF radios. However, the procedures
used during the transmission of the message and the fact that
they occurred almost simultaneously were the main reasons cited
why the Canadian Coast Guard response was prematurely terminated.
This is an example, which highlights what can
happen, when not properly using your safety equipment. This
error caused one of the crew to die of, and the other crew members
to suffer hypothermia. All because they didn't follow tried
and tested emergency radio procedures.
All recreational boats should carry a VHF marine
radio on board. While currently not a federal regulation, the
Coast Guard Auxiliary, during their Vessel Safety Check (VSC)
recommends this piece of safety equipment. More importantly,
all members of the crew need to know how to use this important
piece of safety equipment!
VHF Radio vs. Cell phone vs. Citizen's Band (CB)
A marine radio (VHF) can be bought as a handheld
radio or a base unit.
Fixed mount (base) units can broadcast at a maximum
of 25 watts, with the ability of also being able to reduce power
to 1 watt. Handhelds normally don't broadcast over 5 watts.
Base units, given the correct tuning, height of antenna and
atmospheric conditions, can broadcast up to 20 nautical miles,
but normally in the 5-10 mile category.
Handheld radios have the advantage of being able
to be carried while you move around your vessel or while on
a dinghy. The disadvantage of this type of radio is the limited
power (wattage per channel) that they are able to produce. The
smaller the wattage, the weaker the signal becomes as it radiates
from the antenna. Thus, the strength, and limited antenna size,
makes long distance communication nearly impossible.
Cell phones have large number of disadvantages,
starting with the inability of other mariner's to hear your
call for distress, which may not be heard by a Coast Guard Units
to the inability of the Coast Guard to use direction finding
equipment to hone in on your signal, should you be unable to
describe your location. Add to these factors the limited distances
cell service extends into the ocean, and you have a generally
Citizen Band Radios, the rage in the early to
mid 1970's, is for most intents and purposes useless as a vehicle
in which to contact the Coast Guard. Most Coast Guard Units
do not have, and thus are unable to receive CB radio broadcasts,
and thus are not able to respond.
The safety conscious recreational boater will
purchase the best safety equipment they can afford, and when
it comes to a VHF marine radio (a fixed mount VHF-FM can be
obtained for as little as $100), they will buy a radio which
will provide quality transmission signal strength, and the ability
to quickly listen and transmit on channels reserved for distress
calls. In addition, most new units have the ability to continuously
monitor multiple frequencies.
What to do in an emergency
Let's briefly go over the three main types of
emergency calls you will hear, according to the Office of Boating
Safety (OBS) of the United States Coast Guard, while monitoring
CH16 on your VHF radio:
MAYDAY is a request for immediate assistance.
LISTEN! DO NOT TRANSMIT!! Determine if you're in a position
to help. If not, maintain radio silence. "MAYDAY"
identifies an imminent, life-threatening emergency.
PAN-PAN (pronounced pahn-pahn) is used when the
safety of a boat or person is in jeopardy. Man-overboard messages
are sent with the PAN-PAN signal.
SECURITE (pronounced say-cure-e-tay) is used to
pass navigation information or weather warnings.
According to the OBS, if you have an emergency, you should use
your VHF radio in the following manner:
If you have an imminent life threatening emergency,
transmit on Channel 16:
1. MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY!
2. This is (name of boat three times).
3. Repeat once more, "MAYDAY", (your boat's name).
4. Now report your position (give as accurate a position as
5. Report nature of emergency.
6. Report the kind of assistance desired.
7. Report number of people on board and condition of any injured.
8. Description of the boat and seaworthiness.
**Then wait for a response. If there is none,
repeat the message**
So, if your vessel is named Blue Duck and you
have an emergency, your broadcast may sound like this:
This Is Blue Duck - Blue Duck - Blue Duck
Cape Henry Light Bears 185 Degrees Magnetic-Distance 2 Miles
Struck Submerged Object
Need Pumps-Medical Assistance And Tow
Three Adults, Two Children Onboard
One Person Compound Fracture Of Arm
Estimate Can Remain Afloat Two Hours
Blue Duck Is Thirty Two Foot Cabin Cruiser-White Hull-Blue Deck
Boating and Safety Education
The United States Coast Guard, the Office for
Boating Safety and the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary are
committed to making Recreational Boating SAFE!
To this end, the USCG Auxiliary provides boating
and safety programs to meet the needs of our constituents, the
boating public. We do this by teaching a myriad of safe boating
courses, available year-round at convenient places to where
boaters live, work and boat.
We provide Vessel Safety Checks at marina's, docks,
and other centrally located areas. We want you to know that
your vessel not only complies with Federal standards, but with
State and Local ordinances, and with the other recommended safety
items, we in the Auxiliary feel are necessary to keep your boating
In addition, members of the Auxiliary, who are
all volunteers, spend countless hours doing safety patrols,
search and rescue and homeland security patrols, on the ground,
on the water and in the air.
To contact your local Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla,
you can either visit us on the web (https://www.cgaux.org)
or contact your local Coast Guard Unit (https://www.uscg.mil).