Safety is not sexy. Anglers never clamor over the lasted in new personal-floatation devices. Fisherman don’t compete to see who is first to use digital selective calling. Yet a nice sunny day of offshore fishing can quickly and unexpectedly turn into violent vicious unforgiving ocean.
Case in point: the use of cell phones versus VHF radio for distress calls. Boaters and anglers have too much faith in cell phones as the sole means of communications on the water, especially in an emergency situations. There has been several cases where life’s were lost with boaters either not able to request rescue over a 911 call or the call being dropped why dispatchers are relaying critical information to the Coast Guard.
Cell phones seem capable of anything these days, and with access to navigational and weather Apps, they can put real time, valuable information in the hands of anglers on the water. But cell phones have definite drawbacks.
Unless protected by a water proof case, they fail when they become wet. They lose their signal in certain locations, and they are no help in contacting nearby boaters unless you happen to know the phone number of somebody aboard. And why many cell phones might contain GPS, they don’t automatically transmit a position to rescuers. Nor is tracking a phone number as simple as punching in a number and finding a signal on a map.
Trying to locate you by pinging you cell phone can take time, critical time if you’re even in range for authorities to try, as the Coast Guard doesn’t have that resource in their rescue center.
There is no current mandate to for recreational boaters to carry a VHF radio onboard but many see it as an impending necessity that going to happen soon.
Most of us who fish Puget Sound or offshore waters of Washington have and use a VHF radio. By law all newly manufactured VHF radios must have digital selective-calling function, which alerts the Coast Guard and other nearby boaters to a vessel in distress.
But fewer than 10 percent of boaters have properly wired their VHFs to an onboard plotter so that its DCS button transmits a position. A great number of boaters also fail to attain a (MMSI) Maritime Mobil Service Identity Number, which helps the Coast Guard identify you and your boat, and is necessary to even use the DSC function to hale other vessels. By connecting the VHF via NMEA 2000 or NEMA 0183 wiring is how the VHF is able to use the GPS position from the plotter.
Always keep in mind the main use of a VHF Radio is to transmit and receive conversations and to request help in an emergency. Following proper radio protocol is extremely important and these radios should never be treated like a CB Radio or a cell phone.
Proper protocol when calling another station or the Coast Guard:
- Name of station being called (repeat three times)
- This is (your vessel name)
- Call sign or registration number
To place an emergency call on Channel 16 (in dire emergency):
- This is (give vessel name and call sign)
- Vessel name
- Location(provide lat/lon information)
- Nature of distress
- Assistance desired
- Helpful information( boat description and status, number of people and injuries)
- Name of your vessel and call sign
Wait for a reply and then allow the authorities to guide you through the ensuing conversation. If your radio is equipped with DSC begin this emergency transmission process, with agreement from rescue authorities.
To help, Boat US offers online assistance (boatus.com/mmsi) for registering, and describes all functions of the DCS through tutorials. The Coast Guard website (uscg.mil and search “MMSI) also offers a DCS presentation and a downloadable brochure on MMSI.
The bottom line is a cell phone is not a substitute for a VHF radio. You should have a VHF radio and it should be wired to DSC capability and be properly registered. Accidents happen quickly on the water and having layered communications leads to a higher probability that you will not be saved in an emergency!