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Old 19-04-2011, 19:09   #1
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VHF Emergency Procedures

My buddy and I are going on our first cruise next month, just a short hop from Boston to Gloucester. We will be no more than 5 nm from the coast at any time and up to 25nm from the USCG station in Boston Harbor. Question: If we put out an emergency call what is the likelihood that the USCG station will pick up the signal from our handheld VHF radio? Additionally, what is the procedure if one hears an emergency call from another vessel but does not hear a response from the coast guard? Should we repeat the call as a “Mayday” or should we simply hail the nearest harbor master/ shore station to put a phone call into the coast guard?
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Old 19-04-2011, 19:29   #2
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Re: VHF Emergency Procedures

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In emergency situations, there are certain procedures to follow to ensure prompt response to your need for help. There are three phrases that you might hear on a VHF radio, and they all relate to safety.
MAYDAY - is the distress signal, and requires the most urgent response. This signal is only to be used when a person, or boat is threatened by grave or imminent danger, and requires assistance.

PAN-PAN - this signal is used to signal urgent information, such as when someone has fallen overboard, or a boat is drifting into the shore or a busy shipping channel.

SECURITE - Is the safety signal. This is used to transmit information about the safety of navigation. For instance, if a large commercial vessel is coming through a narrow channel, this signal would be used. Can also be used to transmit weather information, such as when a powerful storm system is approaching.
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If you don't get an immediate response keep periodically sending out a Mayday broadcast as long as the radio will function, taking care to give your position with every transmission. If time permits, scan through the other channels and interrupt any radio traffic you hear with your Mayday broadcast. If you don't hear traffic, try transmitting on Coast Guard Channel 22A.

If your emergency isn't immediately life threatening, say Pan-Pan instead of Mayday. This is the urgency call-Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan (pronounced pahn). Make it just like a distress call, except state exactly what assistance you want. For example, maybe you have a controllable leak, and you just want help standing by in case it gets worse.
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Here's a hypothetical mayday from the fishing boat Tambourine:

"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is the Tambourine. Our position is 24:33' north and 74:56' west and we are sinking."


Try to speak slowly and clearly, and repeat this information three times. The essential information is Mayday, your position, and your emergency. If you have time, describe your boat and how
many are aboard:

"We are a 23' Mako, green hull, white decks, with two adults and two children aboard."



Boat US - Online Boating Safety Study Guide
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Old 19-04-2011, 20:07   #3
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Re: VHF Emergency Procedures

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Originally Posted by Neo View Post
My buddy and I are going on our first cruise next month, just a short hop from Boston to Gloucester. We will be no more than 5 nm from the coast at any time and up to 25nm from the USCG station in Boston Harbor. Question: If we put out an emergency call what is the likelihood that the USCG station will pick up the signal from our handheld VHF radio?

They'll hear you even if you sit on the antenna at that distance. We sailed that route often and never had a problem with a handheld.
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Old 19-04-2011, 20:27   #4
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Re: VHF Emergency Procedures

"If time permits, scan through the other channels and interrupt any radio traffic you hear with your Mayday broadcast. If you don't hear traffic, try transmitting on Coast Guard Channel 22A."


Thanks, this helps.

I have a good understanding of the the various emergency calls. However, I was taught that VHF is line of sight transmission and that I would have difficulty hailing our marina from within the harbor if I was behind one of the islands, so I have been using my cell phone instead. Does the coast gaurd get better VHF reception than marinas and such?
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Old 19-04-2011, 20:55   #5
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Re: VHF Emergency Procedures

Chapmans sould be read before you go offshore.

Not to be mean, but you sound a little ill prepared for a trip like that if you don't know how to properly use a radio.

Please don't feel insulted.......as most boaters use a VHF like a CB radio anyhow.
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Old 19-04-2011, 22:30   #6
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Re: VHF Emergency Procedures

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Chapmans sould be read before you go offshore.

Not to be mean, but you sound a little ill prepared for a trip like that if you don't know how to properly use a radio.

Please don't feel insulted.......as most boaters use a VHF like a CB radio anyhow.
No offense taken. It is a fair assumption. I have no practical experience with a VHF since the boat club I sail from relies on cell phones to communicate with their boats in the Boston Harbor. It is more reliable than VHF because the harbor islands are said to block VHF transmission, whereas cell phone reception is very good. And since I am intimidated by the radio, this has been a handy excuse for me not to use it.

I have only been sailing for past 8 years, but the last two have been in a Ranger 24 in and around the harbor islands, and I have taken and passed several sailing courses including US Sails Basic Cruising, which I passed with flying colors. But I am headed out of the harbor now, so I have a lot more to learn in the next 6 weeks.

I believe the useful range of VHF to be a maximum of 25 miles, which will be the distance to the coast guard station during our cruise. Hence, the question about range. This raised the other question of what is the proper method of contacting the coast guard if I were to receive ANOTHER'S mayday call. As my mom used to say, "Forgive my ignorance for I am a humble pig". Cheers
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Old 20-04-2011, 01:22   #7
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Re: VHF Emergency Procedures

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...... We will be no more than 5 nm from the coast at any time and up to 25nm from the USCG station in Boston Harbor. Question: If we put out an emergency call what is the likelihood that the USCG station will pick up the signal from our handheld VHF radio? ......
You don't necessarily have to be line of sight to the USCG station. In most areas, the Coast Guard has vhf repeaters at various points to give good coverage of most coastal areas. As long as you are within range of one of the repeaters you should be able to make contact. These repeaters work for ch 16 and 22A, and maybe some of the navigation channels, but not for the usual civilian talk channels.

Take a look at the USCG National Distress System webpage, as they have posted charts of estimated coverage of most coastal areas. There is no guarantee that you can reach them, but if you are within the coverage area the odds are pretty fair you can reach them. Note this depends on various factors such as how high your handheld is above the water, etc. There are never any guarantees about radio communication. You may find dead zones in some areas that the chart indicates have coverage. And you may find coverage extends to areas well beyond what is indicated on the charts.

A radio is great to have if you really get into a serious jam, but you shouldn't depend on it working. The best thing is to stay out of trouble in the first place. Secondarily learn and practice dealing with potential problems. The radio should be your last resort.
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Old 20-04-2011, 01:26   #8
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Re: VHF Emergency Procedures

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... However, I was taught that VHF is line of sight transmission and that I would have difficulty hailing our marina from within the harbor if I was behind one of the islands, so I have been using my cell phone instead.
Actually VHF signal does bend a bit e.g. a bit over horizon or over small islands. Basically cellphone signal is worse than VHF, it bends less, also cellphones has relatively low transmit power even compared to handheld VHF. I would say VHF is more reliable way of communication at open sea than cellphone. Also you should keep in mind that VHF emergency call may be picked by some other vessel in areas where cellphones do not operate. I belive coast guard stations tend to place their antennaes as high position as possible for ensuring good reception of weakened faraway signals. Radio signals does also reflect from physical objects, really cellphone signal is better on this and also cellphone has benefit of having more receiving base stations at land. But stil I think cellphone is not good at sea since they just loose contact to network quite soon you get far from coastline.
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Old 20-04-2011, 02:11   #9
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Re: VHF Emergency Procedures

Have attached a section from the UK's Annual Summary of Notice to Mariners which explains use of Radio Telephony in emergency situations, including Mayday Relays. Its International, so the same procedure applies in the US.
Attached Files
File Type: pdf DISTRESS AND RESCUE AT SEA — VESSELS AND AIRCRAFT.pdf (227.4 KB, 351 views)
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Old 20-04-2011, 03:27   #10
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Re: VHF Emergency Procedures

Great information in the last three posts. Many thanks.
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Old 20-04-2011, 04:07   #11
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Re: VHF Emergency Procedures

Also keep in mind that most handheld VHFs have a 1-watt and a 5-watt setting. Be sure to have yours set on 5W when broadcasting from offshore. (The 1W setting is for close situations, like talking to the harbormaster from 200 yards away.) The Coast Guard coverage maps assume 1 watt of transmit power, so you may find you have coverage further out.
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Old 20-04-2011, 04:28   #12
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Re: VHF Emergency Procedures

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I believe the useful range of VHF to be a maximum of 25 miles, which will be the distance to the coast guard station during our cruise. Hence, the question about range.
Yes, but that is likely to be with a yacht ariel sitting on top of a mast, it's the line of sight thing. Whilst you may well receive the CG transmissions on a hand held because they site ariels in good spots (like high up) they may not hear you at 25 miles with a hand held at 5 watts in the cockpit. However, there are too many variables to say definately yes or no. (I note that you are only going 5m offshore).

It would be unlikely that you hear a May Day and the CG don't. However, if it happens then you are into a "May Day Relay" situation. You need paper and a pencil, a clear head, no distractions and to stay calm, because the May Day sender won't be. So someone else sails slowly whilst you pass the information back and forth.

We have a very good 1 day VHF course in the UK, you must have something similar in the US. Would be well worth doing

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Old 20-04-2011, 06:44   #13
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Re: VHF Emergency Procedures

We've sailed that route regularly. There used to be a CG station in Gloucester, and I haven't heard that it closed. You also have harbormasters along the route who monitor Channel 16. With the combination of repeaters and stations at both ends of your route, you should be fine.
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Old 20-04-2011, 07:09   #14
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Re: VHF Emergency Procedures

I also started my sailing career in a club in Boston Harbor. I have many fond memories of day trips to Marblehead in an Olsen 25. You should not worry about being out of radio range. There are Coast Guard stations in Boston and Gloucester, as well as Harbormasters in Nahant, Marblehead, Manchester, and Magnolia. Not to mention SeaTow. You should also have cell phone service the whole way as well, but in an emergency you should use the radio first.
Boston to Gloucester is easily done in a day, unless there is a Nor'easter, but if the wind is light you have plenty of other options, Marblehead, Salem, or Great Misery Island are fun places to visit. Good Luck and have fun.
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Old 20-04-2011, 11:57   #15
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Re: VHF Emergency Procedures

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And since I am intimidated by the radio, this has been a handy excuse for me not to use it.
May I suggest you head down to your boat on a pleasant evening and listen to channel 13 for an hour or so with your beverage of choice in hand. Then spend some time on a weekend afternoon listening to 16 and 9. It will give you some perspective on the more professional use of the radio by the commercial guys and give you some confidence that the standard for recreational folks is pretty low. *grin*
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