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Communication Devices

VHF Radio
VHF Radio

The FCC does not require operators of recreational vessels to carry a radio or to have an individual license to operate VHF marine radios (with or without digital selective calling capability), EPIRBs, or any type of radar. Operators must, however, follow the procedures and courtesies that are required of licensed operators specified in FCC rules. You may use the name or registration number to identify your boat. Brochure All About Marine VHF Radios

Vessels (boats) required to be licensed:
1. Vessels that use MF/HF single-sided band radio, satellite communications or telegraphy.

2. Power-driven vessels over 65.6 feet (20 meters) in length.

3. Vessels used for commercial purposes including:

a. Vessels documented for commercial use, including commercial fishing vessels.

b. U.S. Coast Guard inspected vessels carrying more than six passengers.

c. Towboats more than 25 feet (7.8 meters) in length.

d. Vessels more than 100 tons certified to carry at least one passenger.

e. Cargo ships over 300 tons.

4. Any vessel, including a recreational vessel, on an international voyage.

Radio Listening Watch

If you’re not required to carry a marine radio (e.g. recreational vessels less than 20 meters in length), but choose to voluntarily, maintain a watch on channel 16 (156.800 MHz) whenever the radio is operating and not being used to communicate. Such vessels may alternatively maintain a watch on VHF channel 9 (156.450 MHz), the “boater-calling” channel. 

Emergency Assistance Protocol-Channel 16

• Speak clearly and transmit “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday… this is (boat name/OR number), (boat name/OR number), (boat name/OR number).”
• Report your location latitude and longitude if known, or we are 3 miles west of Tongue Point; “or, last seen reference point (buoy, landmark, etc.).”
• Report the nature of your emergency (swamping, onboard fire, collision, etc.).
• Report the number of people on board including yourself.
• Wait for a response for 10 seconds, and if there is none, repeat the message protocol.

Be prepared to give the following information:

• Describe the boat and its seaworthiness (“Boat is a 30-foot white cabin cruiser with a blue canopy. Engine has stopped due to flooding and boat is in danger of sinking.”)
• Condition of any injured persons.
• What assistance is needed (“Need to have people removed from the boat, and we need a pump and tow.”)

Cell phones, although great for communication on land, may not work in an emergency situation out on the water. Several disadvantages include:

• Geography may limit or block cell phone signal;
• Caller’s location cannot be determined using the radio direction finders;
• 911 calls from maritime locations are frequently misdirected to police or fire departments, which can delay a water rescue response;
• Cell phones cannot be monitored by other boaters;
• It may not be possible for the caller to be contacted by the rescue boat or aircraft.

If a cell phone is your only means of making a distress call, take the following precautions before leaving the dock:

• Make sure the cell phone battery is fully charged;
• Keep the cell phone in a waterproof bag that floats;
• Have the U.S. Coast Guard and other appropriate water rescue phone numbers programmed into your cell phone;
• When you first place the distress call, immediately give your:
• Cell phone number, vessel name and/or description position and/or location, nature of the emergency number of people on board. Repeat cell phone number before ending the phone call.
• Speak slowly so that you can be clearly understood.

Emergency Communication Devices


EPIRB Signal Schematic
An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, or EPIRB, is used to alert Search and Rescue forces in the event of an emergency. It does this by transmitting a coded message on the 406 MHz distress frequency via satellite and earth stations to the nearest Rescue Coordination Center, which then notifies local Search and Rescue forces. It may be deployed automatically (Category I) or manually (Category II) deployed, or both (Category I). If your EPIRB transmits GPS coordinates, it can alert Search and Rescue forces of your position in as little as 2-3 minutes. 

An EPIRB is for one’s boat and registered to the vessel. It should be mounted in an area on the vessel free of overhead obstructions, yet easily accessible (Category I). It may also be carried in a ditch bag, which is a compact floating bag designed to hold items a boater may need in an emergency (Category II).

Boaters often prefer an EPIRB over a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). EPIRBs, once placed in the water, will operate autonomously by self-activating and floating upright in a transmitting position. Because of their simplicity, it is easy to educate others on board about how they work. They are specifically designed for a worst-case scenario of just you and the beacon in the water. Owning a properly installed EPIRB is a sound investment for boaters, as it may save your life and the lives of loved ones during an emergency.

You must register your EPIRB with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at – it is very easy and only takes a few minutes. If any of your information changes (phone number, address, sold or bought a new boat), you must update your registration. If you sell your boat, instruct the new owner to update the registration as well, or you may be contacted by rescue authorities if it is activated.

PLB -Personal Locator BeaconImage of a Personal Locator Beacon attached to a life jacket

A Personal Locator Beacon, or PLB, works in the same way as an EPIRB by sending a coded message on the 406 MHz distress frequency via satellite and earth stations to the nearest Rescue Coordination Center, which then notifies local Search and Rescue forces. A PLB is registered to the person, not a vessel, and may be used on land as well as the water. However, PLBs require a little more effort to operate, as they must be manually activated and may need to be held out of the water to function properly even though they are waterproof.

PLBs are small enough to carry on your person so they are well suited for boaters to attach to one’s life jacket, a pocket or purse. However, if a PLB is not attached to your life jacket, you may not have it when you need it the most. The National Safe Boating Council believes wearing a life jacket is the simplest life-saving strategy for recreational boaters. Learn more at

You must register your PLB with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at – it is very easy and takes just a few minutes that might become a lifetime of survival. If any of your information changes (phone number, address, marital status), you must update your registration.  Source: ACR Electronics Inc., The Science of Survival: A Boater’s Guide to EPIRBs, 2012,

Benefits of Emergency Locator Beacons

Some boaters may feel confident they are safe because they have a VHF radio, GPS tracker or cellphone, and not own an EPIRB or PLB. Here is a comparison of emergency local beacons to other common communications devices.