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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

Taking the Search Out of Search and Rescue

Pagels says boaters would be particularly remiss not to take advantage of the new technology associated with VHF-FM that could expedite their rescue. He points to Rescue 21, the Coast Guard’s new direction-finding radio communications system, as an example.

“In the time it takes a boater to say ‘Mayday, Mayday, Mayday,’ and identify himself three times, we have a line of bearing that we can start searching right away. All Rescue 21 needs is more than three seconds of a transmission, and we’ll get it and send out a Urgent Marine Information Broadcast to alert other vessels on the water.”

That’s because Rescue 21 identifies the location of callers in distress via towers that can triangulate the source of a VHF radio transmission and generate lines of bearing to that signal. Furthermore, the range of Rescue 21 extends to at least 20 nautical miles from shore.

In contrast to the National Distress and Response System it replaced, Rescue 21 is also digital, which means it is compatible with Digital Selective Calling, a safety feature standard on all built-in VHF-FM radios manufactured after 2011 and a feature on some handheld units. At the touch of a button, a DSC-equipped VFH radio will send an automated distress call with a unique Maritime Mobile Service Identity number that is available for free online through BoatUS, Sea Tow, and the United States Power Squadrons. Your vessel information will be sent automatically to other DSC-equipped vessels as well as the Coast Guard. Connect the DSC-equipped VFH radio to your GPS, and it will also send your exact position to the Coast Guard.

But like any safety equipment, a DSC-equipped VHF-FM radio will not work if you’re not using it. If you can’t connect the GPS to the radio, have a professional do it for you, advises Pagels. However, “an MMSI is better than nothing, I’ll have a name and telephone number, so if I know who it is and what boat it is, we have a place to start.”

VHF-FM radio owners also need to re-register the MMSI if they buy a used radio or boat, lest an emergency transmission “result in the misleading shuffle, where we’re calling the old owner or looking for him or her” and not the boater in distress, adds Pagels.

DSC-equipped radios cost less than one might imagine. Many, says Sens, are less than the cost of new smart phones. Given the comparable price but the incomparable advantages of VHF-FM, it seems that on the water, VHF is the smarter technology.

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The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency's Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to "Boat Responsibly!" For more tips on boating safety, visit

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