Contacting the Coast Guard with your Marine VHF radio

Todd VorenkampBoater safety

Now that all of you HASA newsletter readers are sporting the latest high-tech Marine DSC-equipped VHF radios after reading my article on DSC you find yourself wondering how to contact the Coast Guard in the event of a maritime emergency…

Unlike a walkie-talkie or cell phone, the marine VHF frequency spectrum is monitored by not only the Coast Guard, but also by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The marine VHF radio is a tool to be used to contact other vessels to pass important information as well as a key piece of emergency gear on your vessel that may be your only means of broadcasting an emergency situation to the outside world.

You may not know it when eavesdropping on ship-to-ship communications on Channel 68, but there are specific guidelines to the content of VHF communications, especially on emergency channels. There are also regulations governing the usage of specific frequencies.

As you know, Channel 16 is the emergency and distress frequency. In less busy areas it is also used as a hailing frequency. In congested marine environments, hailing is done on Channel 9. If you hail another vessel on Channel 16, you should ask them to “switch and answer” on a non-emergency working frequency immediately. Channel 16 is the equivalent to a single phone line 911 dispatch center. If you are using Channel 16 for non-emergency chatter, a boater in distress will not be able to use the frequency to call for help.

When hailing the Coast Guard or other vessels to pass important or distress information on Channel 16, there are three basic types of calls that can be made:

1) “Sécurité, sécurité, sécurité” [Pronounced SAY-CURE-E-TAY – it is French, by the way] is used to broadcast important safety information. Many boaters have heard the Coast Guard issue “sécurité” broadcasts, but any vessel can issue a similar call. Back in my merchant marine days, I could be heard on Channel 13 in San Juan, Puerto Rico saying the following: “Sécurité, sécurité, sécurité…this is the Sea-Land Crusader, WZJF, Sea-Land Crusader, Sea-Land Crusader…leaving the container terminal and heading for sea in San Juan Harbor…any concerned traffic, please contact the Sea-Land Crusader on Channel 13, 16….Sea-Land Crusader, WZJF, standing by channel 13, 16.” [Channel 13 is the designated ship-to-ship inter-harbor frequency. “WZJF” is the ship’s radio station call sign – only applicable to large commercial vessels.]

An appropriate use on the Lost Coast would be seen in this example: “Sécurité, sécurité, sécurité…this is the Fishing Vessel Big Crab reporting large amounts of driftwood near the entrance to Humboldt Bay.” Use “sécurité” to tell all those monitoring Channel 16 about something that might be a safety concern.

2) “Pan pan, pan pan, pan pan” [Pronounced PON or PAN] is used to transmit an urgent emergency where the vessel or lives are not in immediate danger. Having said this, if you feel that the situation is dire, do not hesitate to broadcast a “Mayday” message (see #3 below). The Coast Guard uses “pan pan” broadcasts when they issue Urgent Marine Information Broadcasts (UMIB). An example is: “Pan pan, pan pan, pan pan…this is United States Coast Guard Group Humboldt Bay, United States Coast Guard Group Humboldt Bay, United States Coast Guard Humboldt Bay…there has been a report of a missing kayaker in the vicinity of Cape Mendocino. All mariners in the area are requested to keep a sharp lookout, assist if able, and report any sightings of distress to the United States Coast Guard.”USCG

Again, vessels may broadcast a “pan pan” message themselves. This would be appropriate if you are reporting damage to the vessel or something like an engine failure. If you are not in danger of drifting into rocks after you lose an engine, a “pan pan” broadcast is appropriate. If you lose an engine and are in danger of being washed into the surf zone or onto a shoal, broadcast a “mayday.”

3) “Mayday, mayday, mayday” is used when broadcasting a critical emergency – the marine VHF equivalent of a 9-1-1 call. This is what you use when the stuff is about to hit the fan (or maybe it already has). When a “mayday” call is received, those people with short hair that drive helicopters and boats with a red slash on the side start moving very quickly to those same boats and helicopters.

Let us look at the anatomy of a good “mayday” call.

Depending on the situation, your first “mayday” call might be your last. Therefore it is important to get as much important information out over the airwaves as you can. In order of importance, the “mayday” call should contain the following:

1) “Mayday” repeated three times. [Mayday, mayday mayday.] 2) Name of your vessel.
3) A GPS position of your vessel, or, if there is no GPS, a reference to a known geographical point (i.e. – “five miles west of the Eel River.”)
4) Nature of the emergency.
5) Number of people on board the vessel.
6) Critical amplifying information.

An example of a good, informative, initial “mayday” call is: “Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is the Big Crab at position 40-41.5 North, 124-12.4 West…On fire and sinking…4 persons on board…Abandoning ship into an orange life raft.”

The Coast Guard has the capability to play back and digitally scrub all radio transmissions on Channel 16. However, as the situation allows, if there was ever a time to be deliberate and articulate when on the radio, the “mayday” call is just that situation.

In the May 1st case of the F/V Sea Clipper, the captain only had time to pass a quick “mayday,” but it was enough to get the Coast Guard responding to his exact position. Listen to the call at the following link: Sea Clipper MAYDAY [The Coast Guard was dispatched, but the caption for that sound file is inaccurate as no one from the Sea Clipper needed to be rescued.]

After broadcasting the “mayday,” be sure to release your transmit button and, if the circumstances allow, wait for the Coast Guard, or another vessel to reply. Again, if further communications are possible, the Coast Guard will ask for more information about your vessel and situation and begin moving assets towards your location. You may also be asked to switch to another frequency if possible, to clear Channel 16 for the next emergency.

For reasons unknown to researchers and scientists, many VHF users become tongue-tied the moment they key the microphone on a VHF radio. These same people have no problems talking on the telephone or citizens-band (CB) radio in their cars. Knowing this might happen to you, when making a routine or emergency transmission on VHF, having something in mind before you key the microphone might be the key to a successful broadcast on a VHF radio.