High frequency or VHF radio is your lifeline to the U.S. Coast Guard during a boating emergency. When contacting the Coast Guard via VHF radio, you must follow a very specific protocol. Using the wrong phrase while calling for help could cost you a large fine and not knowing your location could cost you your life.
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Keep your VHF radio set to Channel 16 whenever you're not using a different channel to communicate with another vessel. The Coast Guard monitors Channel 16, as do other boaters who might be in your area and able to assist. By keeping your radio set to Channel 16, you eliminate having to find the channel in an emergency.
Be aware of your exact location at all times. The Coast Guard can find you more quickly if you can provide your longitude and latitude. If you don't know your exact position, keep an eye out for geographical landmarks. Routinely ask yourself, "If I had to call for help, how would I tell the Coast Guard where to find me?"
Assess your emergency. It should fall into one of three categories. If there's an immediate threat of loss of life or property (your boat), your emergency is a "mayday" situation. If you need help, but no one's life is in danger and your boat isn't seriously damaged, you have a "pan-pan" emergency. If you're contacting the Coast Guard to relay a situation that is possibly dangerous to boaters, it's a "securité" call.
Press the call button on your VHF radio and begin with your type of emergency. Repeat it three times. For example, in a life-threatening emergency, begin your call with, "Mayday, mayday, mayday." Say the name of your vessel three times. "This is the Morning Glory, the Morning Glory, again the Morning Glory." State your call sign, your exact location, a description of your boat, the number of people on board and then relay your emergency. Conclude your message with "Over."
Wait for a response. As you're waiting, get your distress signals ready. You might need to fire a flare to help rescuers spot you. If, after a minute, you don't hear a response, repeat your entire message.
Write down the entire message if you hear a distress call from another boat. Even if your boat isn't in distress, you could still need to contact the Coast Guard for another vessel. This is called a relay message. The boat in distress might not have a strong enough signal to reach the Coast Guard. If the distress call goes unanswered, you should relay the exact message to the Coast Guard.
Avoid using the VHF radio while a vessel is waiting for the Coast Guard to answer its distress call.
Tips and warnings
- Speak slowly and clearly when contacting the Coast Guard.
- Do not use Channel 16 for any communication other than emergency, distress, safety and initial vessel contact messages.
- The Coast Guard assesses hefty fines for using a Mayday call for emergencies that aren't immediately life threatening.
- Do not use the radio to interrupt communication between the Coast Guard and a distressed boat.