Boating Safety Blog
Disclaimer:   I am not a spokesperson for the US Coast Guard. For an official interpretation of regulations you must contact the US Coast Guard or other organization referenced..   More..... 

Boating Safety

Seamanship: Page 4

1. Navigation

2. Boat Handling

3. Weather

4.  Communications

5.  Sailing

6.  Emergencies

7.  Courtesy On the Water



Note: most of the information below, especially that on radios, EPIRBS and PLBs applies worldwide. These a not just USA rules.  They are rules developed by international bodies, and ratified by the member nations (Usually the UN or IMO).

Marine Radios:

Marine Radio 

Being able to communicate with rescue agencies is vital in an emergency. Many people today rely on their cell phones for this, but that is a huge mistake.  Many areas, especially coastal areas, have no cell phone coverage.  The most reliable and the recommended means of communication is Marine VHF radiotelephone.  Prices for these have dropped rapidly over the last ten years and features such as Digital Selective Calling (DSC) and GPS have been added so that you can not only call for help, the radio broadcasts your position to the rescue agency.  In addition these radios can be used to listen to marine weather forecasts,  make phone calls, and communicate with other boats and ships. They are a real all around communications device. If they have the GPS feature they can show your location and tell you your course and speed.

VHF Marine Radios automatically monitor channel 16, the distress and calling frequency, and channel 13, the shipping traffic frequency.  Shipping is required by law to monitor these channels at all times, so if you do call for help it will be heard not only by the Coast Guard but everyone who has a Marine Radio, within range of yours.
US VHF Channels

You no longer need a license to use a marine VHF radio and it does not have to be registered with the FCC (in the USA).  However,  if you plan to use your VHF Marine Radio outside the US you must obtain a ships station license, and you may be required to have a radiotelephone operators permit.


If the radio has digital selective Calling (DSC) you do need to obtain a special number called an MMSI, which allows you to enter your boat's identification into the radio, so that in an emergency your boat is immediately identified. The number is easy to get and does not involve a bureaucratic hassle. If you are a member of BOATUS  or US Power Squadron and some other boating groups, you can get the MMSI from them for free. This is not only a USA requirement. It is a worldwide requirement for using DSC.  Those persons not in the USA can get one from their own government.   List of International Regulatory Bodies

Getting an MMSI:
US Power Squadron MMSI:
Nautilus Lifeline:

Radio Usage:

If you do use Marine VHF you need to learn the basics in radio usage. There are standard procedures that you must follow and rules you must know.  Not following these can get you nasty mail from the US Coast Guard or the FCC and in some circumstances can net you a fine.  These radios are not toys and children should be instructed in their use but never allowed to play with them or use them unsupervised. Making false distress calls is a violation of Federal Law (not just in the USA, but internationally as well) and can get you jail time.  They are not CB (Citizens Band) either and the type of usage and chatter you hear on CB is not permitted on Marine VHF.  If you want to chat there are VHF channels you can use, but protocols must be followed.  See the links below.

Marine Radio Procedures
VHF Radio Basics:
Marine VHF Radio Handbook (PDF)
When to Use Mayday, Pan, and Securite'

The most important procedure though is calling for help.  There are three levels that should be used. All of these should be done on channel 16. SO first tune to Channel 16.

Securite':  You will hear this one most often used by the Coast Guard warning mariners of a danger on the water, such as vessel blocking a channel, a missing aid to navigation, other navigational hazard, or a fast approaching storm.  However if you want to report a hazard you begin by saying Securite', (that is French and it is pronounced say cure e tay) Securite', Securite', then identify yourself (that is your vessel name), where you are, and what the hazard is.  If you are making the broadcast the Coast Guard may respond.

Pan:  Pan is used when you have a serious situation but it hasn't reached a point of immediate danger where you neeed to be rescued. For instance, you discover your boat is taking on water, but you seem to be able to control it.  You want to contact the Coast Guard and advise them of your situation, just in case, so they know where you are and what the situation is.  You say Pan, Pan, Pan,  (some say prononced pon, pon, pon or pahn, pahn, pahn) then identify your vessel, and the situation and say "over". The Coast Guard will respond and ask you about your situation and advise you to keep them informed. Once the situation is over or you have reached safety, bring them up to date.

Mayday:  (Also French, M'aidez, literally help me) Mayday is a cry for help and is the voice equivalent of S O S.  It should be used only when you are in immediate danger or someone else is in immediate danger, such as sinking, fire, capsize, collision, going on the rocks, etc.  Give your vessel name, description, any distinguishing features that would make it easier to find you,  your location as accurately as possible, how many people on board, and the nature of the problem.  Say Mayday Mayday Mayday, this is the motorboat (sailboat, whatever) the boats name, color, if necessary, your location by GPS if you have it, or if in sight of land, any prominent landmarks, or any aids to navigation, buoys, daymarks, lights, you can see,  and the nature of the problem, fire, sinking, collision, whatever. Wait for a response, if it is not immediate, broadcast again until you get a response, or until you have to abandon ship. 

Other Means of Communication:

However, in areas where there is no marine VHF coverage, as on many small inland lakes and rivers, any means of communicating that works, is better than none at all.   In very remote areas a satellite phone will work, but these are still very expensive.  There are other options.

One of the best options is an EPIRB.  An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, very similar to the ELT carried by aircraft.  It is automatic and identifies who you are and your location via satellites.  This is monitored by rescue agencies worldwide. They were developed specifically for marine use and are mandated by law for commercial vessels.  There are many thousands of recreational boats that have them, especially in coastal areas or on boats making offshore voyages.

For small boat users on inland lakes and rivers a good and far less expensive option is a PLB, a Personal Locater Beacon.  Developed for individual use they are used extensively by mountain climbers, hikers and people who like to go into wilderness areas.  They do much the same as an EPIRB. They are becoming common among kayaker and canoeists.  Having one of these attached to a lifejacket would certainly speed your rescue.

Visual Distress Signals:

  In many areas, particularly coastal areas, boats are required to carry visual distress signals.  Many people equate this term with flares. But there are various types. There are flares, lights, flags, and smoke flares. Some are for use at night and others are specifically for day use.  Most states do not require these on boats under a certain size or on inland lakes and rivers.  You need to know your local regulations,  The National Association Of State Boating Law Administrators web site (NASBLA can direct you to your local state BLA website where you can find out the rules for your state.

Visual Distress signals

Or you can look up your state government on line. All the states in the USA have the regulations for boating in their state posted on line.

Visual Distress Signal Usage:

Flares:  If you get in trouble, do not immediately shoot off your flares! assess your situation first.  Most important. Will anyone see them?  Do not waste them if there is no one to see them. If there are other boats in site, or land with house or other signs of people then firing off a flare may attract attention.  But wait after the first one to see if it di attract attention. Save the rest to direct rescuers to you.

Rescue lights:

Any light can aid in your rescue, and you should have one attached to your lifejacket. The most important thing is how bright it is and how far away it can be seen. It is amazing how far away even a dim light can be seen on a dark night. This is why sailors were not allowed to smoke on deck on warships during WWII. Even that red tip of a cigarette could be seen from a mile away on a dark night with no moon or stars.  But it is better if you have a light specifically designed for this.  There are rescue lights that flash SOS. There are some that flash SOS and can be used as a strobe light or flashlight.

Also the chemical lights that hikers, campers and other use are good to have.  They last far longer than a battery powered flashlight and won't die if they get wet.


An orange flag with a black ball and black square is an international distress signal.  You should have one in your kit. They can be placed on a deck or cabin top for aircraft to see or on large boats draped over the side. 

Getting Help On the Water:

Visual Distress Signals:

Radio Information:

What Is DSC:
Marine Radio frequencies:
Marine Radio Info from Blue Seas:

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