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Mayday: Use VHF Radio for Emergencies at Sea and Distress Calls

A reminder from the U.S. Coast Guard to use your VHF radio—not your cellphone—to call for help when you're in distress on the water.
Boating Safety

There’s No App For That

Cellular devices seem capable of doing almost anything thanks to the advent of smartphones and downloadable applications. This versatility and cell phones’ portability are leading many recreational boaters to have too much faith in them as the sole means of communication on the water, especially in emergency situations.

In fact, Arlotta’s death following the sinking of the Sea Wolf is part of an alarming trend of maritime cell usage that Pagels and other Coast Guard personnel say is complicating search and rescue cases.

“Cell phones may have gaps in coverage, especially in coastal waters,” leading to dropped calls and bad reception, explains Dennis Sens, the Fifth Coast Guard District’s Boating Safety Program Specialist. Though some phones are equipped with GPS transmitters, that capability may be misleading when it comes to locating a vessel in distress, says Sens.

“Even if cell phones have a GPS transmitter, tracking down a cell phone signal is a very involved process. We don’t have that capability in our command centers, and that information is not easily obtainable from the cell phone companies—if they do have it—because of privacy concerns. All this research takes time, and during this process, things are happening on the water.”

Even though VHF-FM radios are not required by law to be carried on board a boat, Sens and Pagels recommend all recreational boaters, even in the smallest vessels, not leave the dock without VHF-FM and use it at the first sign of distress. Calling 911 with a cell phone should not be ruled out in case of an emergency, but both experts agree that using a VHF-FM for distress calls is a surer way to get the help you need, faster.

“VHF is your direct link to the Coast Guard because the watchstanders at small boat stations and at the Sector [command centers] monitor those radio channels,” says Sens. “You’ll be talking directly to the element of the Coast Guard that launches boats and planes,” and that watchstander can speak with you to get more information.

Moreover, Pagels says, other nearby commercial and recreational vessels may be monitoring the airwaves and can lend a hand or communicate directly with the vessel in distress.

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