Marine VHF Radio

Long Distance

A marine VHF radio is generally the best way of calling for help. All VHF marine radio operators must have a restricted Operator Certificate (maritime). Use your radio channel 16 (the standard hailing channel) and proper radio protocol. Depending on the severity of the situation, you will use the words Mayday or Pan-Pan, each repeated 3 times.

For a situations of extreme danger, (your boat is taking on water and at risk of sinking or capsizing), say Mayday – Mayday – Mayday, then provide the name of your vessel, its position, the nature of the problem and the help you require.

If you need help but are not in immediate danger, (your engine has quit and you cannot reach shore) say Pan-Pan – Pan-Pan – Pan-Pan, then provide the name of your boat, its position, the nature of your problem and the type of help you need.

Restricted Operator Certificates (maritime) can be attained by successfully completing a short course and exam available through course providers such as the Canadian Power and Sail Squadrons ( Some of the topics covered include use of the phonetic alphabet and specific functional channel assignments. (Eg. Channel 16 for hailing and emergency communications.)

VHF Radios come in fixed and portable models having maximum power ratings of 25 Watts and 5 Watts respectively. Power ratings translate to transmission & reception distance. Transmission/reception distance can be adversely affected by weather and topography as these radios operate on a “line of sight” basis.

Many of the newer models employ a feature called Digital Selective Calling (DSC) which operates on channel 70. DSC-equipped radios have a red button protected by a spring-loaded flap on which the word “Distress” is shown. By pressing this button for 5 seconds, the Coast Guard is alerted to your need for assistance and, where linked to a GPS, your latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates. Operators also have the option of dialing in the nature of the distress.

While cell phones have become an indispensible part of our day to day lives, they don’t make an ideal alternative to a VHF radio. Even though the capability exists to contact the Canadian Coast Guard Marine Communications and Traffic Services by dialing *16 or #16, not all cell providers offer this service. Other limitations include:

  • Geographic cell service restrictions. (i.e. No signal)
  • Potential cell phone reliability issues when wet.
  • Inability to alert nearby vessels of your emergency as their cell phone number is required.
  • Some cell phone signals cannot be used to triangulate your position.