Equip your boat with a marine radio


By Scott Erickson

Any vessel equipped with a marine VHF radio and operated solely in U.S. waters must comply with U.S. Coast Guard usage rules for operating communications equipment. If you are new to boating or thinking of upgrading your equipment, you need to know the basics of a marine radio.

Making a call

When initiating VHF communications, call the vessel you want, and identify yourself: “Titanic, this is Branta.”

“Sécurité” (pronounced ‘secur-e-tay’) repeated three times as the first part of a message alerts other boaters to important safety information. “Pan Pan” (pronounced ‘pon pon’) alerts other boaters of an urgent situation that may require assistance. It may be followed by a “mayday” call or canceled by the initiator. Mayday repeated three times indicates an immediate emergency situation and is recognized as the very definition of “I need help!”


If you plan to operate in foreign waters and use VHF communications or have a vessel that requires a radio station license, you should have a Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit. The FCC issues these non-expiring permits.

Digital Selective Calling

If your radio is equipped with Digital Selective Calling, you can broadcast your location and activate the Coast Guard’s Rescue 21 system in an emergency using the big red button on your radio.

To transmit your location to the Coast Guard or other vessels in an emergency, your DSC-equipped radio must have position input from a GPS unit. You also need to acquire and input a Maritime Mobile Service Identity number into your DSC radio.

You can use DSC to initiate contact and respond to DSC-equipped radios without having to use Channel 16. DSC radios can be programmed to hail a friend’s boat, make group calls and more.

DSC-equipped radios purchased after March 2011 must have test call capability. If your radio does not, you can test it by sending a DSC call to another DSC-equipped radio.

MMSI numbers

For vessels that operate solely in the United States, a Maritime Mobile Service Identity number may be obtained for free from United States Power Squadrons, BoatUS or SeaTow. If you plan to operate in foreign countries, you need to obtain the identifier from the FCC. An MMSI number is also required if you have an Automatic Identification System transponder.

Radio station licenses

If you have additional communications equipment aboard, such as a marine single-sideband radio for long-range communications, an amateur radio station (ham radio) using high-frequency bands or satellite-based communications such as INMARSAT, your vessel is a radio station and needs an FCC-issued radio station license. These automatically get MMSI numbers and radio call signs. If you have never been issued an FCC license, you must register for an FCC Registration Number from the FCC’s Commission Registration System (CORES). If you already have an FRN, then you can skip this step. Use the helpline number if things get confusing. Check with the FCC for any new information regarding MMSI and vessel radio stations.

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The Ensign magazine is an official channel of United States Power Squadrons, America’s Boating Club, a volunteer organization whose members teach boating skills and best practices to help improve the safety of our nation’s waterways. Learn more.