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 people 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 phones, although very convenient on land, are less reliable on the water. Most are not water resistant, and their range is relatively short when compared to their range on land due to the amount 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.
  • Your communication reach with a cell phone is also limited on the water because you must know the other ship’s cell phone number. A cell phone also won’t allow you to “broadcast” to several boaters at a time which is important in a true emergency.

Why a VHF Radio is Preferred

An installed VHF unit. 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:

  • 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, or a fierce storm disables you, or you find yourself in a true emergency, a VHF radio can be your lifeline to the world. In Coast Guard jurisdictions, VHFs are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For extra assurance, the USCG and 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.

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 if their VHF radio is powered up. Calls to other vessels or land-based businesses and marinas are normally initiated on Channel 16 too. Recreational vessels may also use Channel 09 as well for hailing which will eliminate some congestion on Channel 16. However, it is important to take note that the United States Coast Guard does not monitor Channel 09 for distress calls. Any vessel in distress should use Channel 16 (which the Coast Guard does monitor). Channel 22 is the most common working channel for USCG in the event of an emergency and channels 1, 2 and 3 are weather broadcast channels.

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.

The Basics of Marine Radio Use

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 abusing these channels.
  • 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.

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.  

  • 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.

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."A man speaks into a mic to establish contact with another vessel.

—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.

Digital Selective Calling (DSC) – What Could be Easier?

A VHF radio equipped with Digital Selective Calling, or DSC, has the equivalent of a "mayday button." All new fixed-mount VHF radios come with this one-button feature, which is usually labeled “DISTRESS.” When activated, it automatically broadcasts an encoded distress call that will be picked up by all nearby vessels equipped with DSC as well as US Coast Guards vessels and their shore stations. If the radio is interfaced with your GPS, it will also automatically broadcast the distressed vessel's position. To use DSC, you must obtain an MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) number. You may do so free of charge at this web address: . There are other great features of the DSC radio such as calling or hailing a fellow boater or a group of boaters that might be travelling or fishing together. You can do this as long as you know their DSC numbers, with the push of a button instead of having to hail by speaking into the microphone. For more on DSC radios, their features and installation, watch the BoatUS Foundation tutorial called, “Can you Hear Me?”

Going the Distance – EPIRBs and PLBs

If you are planning an offshore voyage, you need to know VHF radios and cellular telephones are limited in range, usually no more than 15 to 25 miles from shore. Emergency beacons.If you needed help or assistance in an emergency, a satellite Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) or a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) may be your only hope for rescue. 

These beacons are part of a worldwide distress system and are designed to quickly and reliably alert rescue personnel, indicate an accurate position, and guide rescue units to the distress scene when all other communications fail. When activated, these units transmit a unique signal that incorporates your location and in some cases, specific information about your vessel. By law, these beacons must be registered so rescue personnel have reliable information. PLBs are also useful for hiking and other adventures so vessel information can be changed to reflect another activity with a different description.

Since these units can cost hundreds of dollars, the BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety rents EPIRBs and PLBs at a mere fraction of the cost of ownership and makes them available to any boater seeking the peace-of-mind and emergency beacon provided.