How to Call the Coast Guard

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coast guard

In times of serious need it's the Coast Guard that comes to the rescue - as long as you know how to call them.

Calling the Coast Guard is something we only want to do in a true emergency, but when you need ’em, boy are you glad to see ’em. I’ve had to make the call only three times in my entire boating career: once back when they would still give recreational boaters a tow, once when there was a medical emergency on board, and once when the boat I was on began sinking 50 miles off the coast. In all three cases—especially the last two—the Coast Guard saved the day. And in all three cases, I contacted them with my VHF radio.

coast guard

In times of serious need it’s the Coast Guard that comes to the rescue – as long as you know how to call them. Photo courtesy of the USCG.

Using the VHF is simple enough that most people could probably figure it out, even with no experience. Most. Probably. And this is where trouble sometimes arises. As a boater, I’ll assume you already know how to switch to distress channel 16, hold down the mic, and say “mayday”. (If not, watch this video on How to Use a VHF Radio).But what happens when you take out a group of friends or family or kids who’ve never even seen a VHF radio before, and you’re the one who falls overboard or has a medical issue?

Whenever you push off the dock with inexperienced boaters, a quick lesson on how to call the Coast Guard is in order. Here are the key details to cover:

1. How to turn on the radio.

2. How to tune it to channel 16.

3. How to key the mic, and say “mayday, mayday, mayday.”

Let’s hope your VHF is either GPS-equipped or is interfaced with your chartplotter, and DSC is active. If not, shame on you—with DSC up and running the USCG gets your exact location automatically, when you radio for help. If you don’t have DSC activated, do it now. And in the meantime, you’d also better show those folks how to read the GPS position off your GPS, or calling the Coast Guard won’t do you much good anyway.

All of that said, let’s hope you never have to call on them—and let’s be very glad they’re out there waiting for the call, when it does come.


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