T HESE DAYS, JUST ABOUT EVERYONE stepping aboard your boat has a cell phone in a pocket. Although phones do provide incredibly convenient communications, any time your boat leaves the dock you can’t rely on them 100-percent. The VHF radio on your boat is far more reliable, when it comes to emergency situations.
If your boat is large enough you probably have a fixed-mount VHF. If not, you should have a handheld stowed aboard. Even if you do have a fixed unit, having a handheld in your emergency bag serves as a back-up. It also allows you to take your most important communications device with you when you jump onto someone else’s boat.
In both cases, make sure you have a unit that’s JIS/IP level six or higher in its waterproofing rating. “JIS” (Japan Industrial Standard) and “IP” (International Protection, also often seen as IPX) are similar, reliable ratings.
A level of six means that the radio (or fishfinder, chartplotter, or any other item carrying the rating) can withstand exposure to powerful water jets spraying 100 liters per minute, for three minutes. A rating of seven means that the unit can withstand immersion under one meter of water for half an hour. A rating of eight means that the radio has survived immersion deeper than one meter.
Another important aspect to VHF communications is DSC, or digital selective calling. DSC essentially gets you a “panic button” on the VHF. Press it, and the radio will automatically transmit your vessel’s information and exact GPS location directly to the USCG. Because it’s digitally processed and uses narrow receiver bandwidth, it also boosts range over normal voice communications.
All fixed-mount VHF radios sold in the US have had DSC capabilities for more than a decade. However a relatively low percentage of them are active and ready for use.
To have DSC active, you must take a few steps ahead of time. First, you need to get GPS data to the radio via a NMEA2000 connection. This is a lot easier than it sounds, and essentially consists of merely connecting two wires (a “data-out” from your GPS/chartplotter with a “data-in” on your VHF, plus a common ground).
In some cases even this isn’t necessary, as a few newer VHF models have GPS built right in (including some DSC-capable handhelds). The second step is registering the radio, by going to the BoatUS web site and filling out a short, painless form online. In it, you merely provide the info the Coast Guard would need in an emergency, such as the type of boat the radio is on, its usual area of operation, the owner’s age and name, and similar basic data.
The process is free, and takes maybe 10 minutes. At the end, you get assigned an MMSI number, which you then program into your radio.
Okay: you have your VHF, you’ve registered it, it’s DSC active, and you’re ready to hit the water. What else do you need to know about VHF communications? For starters, remember that channel 16 is reserved for distress calls and contacting the Coast Guard in an emergency, only
Channel 13 is used by commercial ships for bridge-to-bridge communications, and it’s best for recreational boaters to stay off of this channel, as well. And channel 22A is used for safety broadcasts and Coast Guard communications (after contacting them on 16, you’ll usually be asked to switch to 22A).
Channels 68, 69, 71, 72, and 78A are considered non-commercial, and are commonly used by the recreational boating community. Remember that people are expected to keep VHF communications brief and to the point, because your use of the channel effectively blocks other boaters from using it.
f you’re communicating with a boat that’s close by (within a mile or so), you should switch over to low power (one watt, on most units). That will limit the distance of your broadcast and also limit the number of other boaters you may be “stepping on.”
In an emergency, of course, rules of courtesy go out the window. Make sure your radio is set to full power (usually 25 watts), and is tuned to channel 16. You should begin your broadcast by stating either “mayday” or “pan-pan,” three times over.
Mayday is the correct call sign to use when you’re in a life-threatening situation. Pan-pan is the appropriate call sign to use when you’re in a situation that could become life threatening in the near future.
Then, clearly give your boat’s name, exact location in latitude and longitude, and state the nature of your emergency. Speak slowly and clearly, and wait for a response from the Coast Guard. Depending on the situation they will usually trigger a response, then come back to you with questions of increasing detail—the age and sex of each of the people onboard, whether anyone has any medical training, if everyone aboard is in good health, and so on.
Why not just try calling the Coast Guard on the phone first, and use the VHF as a back-up? If you’re in need of help, VHF broadcasts are not only heard by the USCG, but also by any near-by boats.
When your radio is on you can get emergency alerts regarding incoming storms, or regarding other boats which may need assistance. Also, cell phones can drop calls unexpectedly, and VHF radios do not. Although the USCG suggests you always carry those phones aboard, they also say you should never depend on them. Make sure you have a DSC-active VHF onboard and ready to use, at all times.
Email Lenny Rudow at [email protected]