Marine Radio Communications,  GPS,   EPIRB

If an emergency does occur, knowing how to communicate distress messages and request assistance can make the difference between life and death.

All regulated marine distress and safety communication equipment, such as

  • Marine VHF radio (with the new digital selective calling option -
    DSC - channel 70);

  • Marine MF/HF - DSC radio;

  • Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB);


  • Immarsat,

work together to form the new international system known as the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). This combination of equipment ensures that distress alerts are quickly relayed to the Coast Guard and the vessels in the immediate vicinity.

Although recreational vessels are not required to carry GMDSS-compatible equipment, it is recommended.  Further, if this type of equipment is carried, it is beneficial to connect it to a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver to ensure that the exact location is automatically transmitted in a digital distress alert.

Marine (VHF) Radios

Marine VHF radio is generally the most effective and reliable means of issuing a distress alert. If you have a marine VHF radio, keep it tuned to channel 16. Know where you are at all times and be prepared to describe your location accurately.

Other boats close to you monitoring channel 16 will know that you are in distress and may be the first to render assistance.   Also, the Coast Guard may be able to use your VHF transmission to determine your approximate location by using radio direction finding equipment.

If you are purchasing a new VHF radio, it is recommended that it includes the new Digital Selective Calling (DSC) feature on channel 70.  DSC is a new feature that provides automatic digital distress alert.

Digital Selective Calling equipment, a part of the Global Maritime Distress Safety System (GMDSS), provides all the functionality of voice-only equipment and, additionally, allows several other features:

  • a transmitter can automatically call a receiver equipped with Digital Selective Calling, using a telephone-type number known as a Maritime Mobile Service Identity or MMSI.   The MMSI is unique 9-digit number assigned to each VHF radio and allows identification of the registered owner of the equipment.   The DSC information is sent on the reserved Channel 70.   When the receiver picks up the call, the active channel is automatically switched to the transmitter's channel and normal voice communication can proceed.
  • a distress button, which automatically sends a digital distress signal identifying the calling vessel and the nature of the emergency.
  • a connection to a GPS receiver allowing the digital distress message to contain the distressed vessel's position.

It should be noted that a GPS receiver is navigation tool that is subject to failure and not a substitute for charts and local knowledge.   The vessel operator should be aware of the approximate location of the vessel at all times by reference to charts and local knowledge.

On a regular VHF radio, in case of grave and imminent danger (for example, your boat is taking on water and you are in danger of sinking or capsizing) use channel 16 and repeat "MAYDAY" three times. Then give the name of your vessel and its position, the nature of your problem and the type of assistance needed.

If you need assistance but are not in immediate danger (for example, your motor has quit and you are unable to get back to shore) use channel 16 and repeat "PAN PAN" three times. Then give the name of your vessel and its position, the nature of your problem and the type of assistance needed.

Frequency 2182 kHz (MF) may also be used for distress calls.

Remember: Channel 16 is used for EMERGENCY and CALLING purposes only. Once you have called another vessel on channel 16, take your conversation to a working frequency and continue. VHF channel 70 is only to be used for DSC (digital) communication and not for voice communications. Anyone who uses a VHF radio must follow the procedures described in the VHF Radiotelephone Practices and Procedures regulations.

Currently, all VHF radio operators are required to have a restricted operator's certificate (ROC) with maritime qualifications. Contact your local Industry Canada office or the Canadian Power Squadrons at 1-888-CPS-BOAT for more information on procedures and license requirements.

Distress Signals

If you hear a distress signal, you are required by law to determine whether you can assist those in distress without endangering your own life or safety of your vessel. Where possible, you must also contact the nearest Rescue Coordination Centre to inform them of the type and location of the distress signal you have seen.

It against the law to make a false distress signal.   False alarms commit search and rescue personnel making them potentially unavailable or further away from real emergencies.

Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB)

EPIRBs are buoyant radio distress beacons that send instantaneously a signal detected by satellites and relayed to Rescue Coordination Centres in the event of a distress.

Recreational vessels are not required to carry an EPIRB.  However, if you are considering sailing offshore or in a remote location (i.e. Labrador Coast where the VHF radio coverage is limited), it is highly recommended.

EPIRBs must be registered with the National Beacon Registry at 1-800-727-9414.


Cellular phones

With a cellular phone, you can contact Rescue Coordination Centres directly or by dialing *16 for the Canadian Coast Guard Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centres. Remember that a cellular phone is not a good substitute for a marine radio and it is not an approved means of issuing a distress call. Making a call this way does not alert other boats close to you that you are in distress — those other boats could be the ones to help you first if they could hear you.

Please note that not all cellular providers offer the *16 service.  Contact your cellular provider to find out if the *16 service is accessible from your phone.