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Radio Regulations

Carrying a Radio

Most recreational vessels under 65.6ft/20m in length do not have to carry a marine radio. Any vessel that carries a marine radio must follow the rules of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Radio Licenses

The FCC does not require operators of recreational vessels to carry a radio or to have an individual license to operate VHF marine radios (with or without digital selective calling capability), EPIRBs, or any type of radar. Operators must however follow the procedures and courtesies that are required of licensed operators specified in FCC Rules. You may use the name or registration number of your vessel to identify your ship station.

Users of VHF marine radio equipped with digital selective calling will need to obtain a maritime mobile service identity (MMSI) number from the FCC. It is unlawful to use digital selective calling without obtaining this identity.

Vessels required to be licensed:
  1. Vessels that use MF/HF single side-band radio, satellite communications, or telegraphy,
  2. Power Driven vessels over 65.6 feet/20 meters in length.
  3. Vessels used for commercial purposes including:
    • Vessels documented for commercial use, including commercial fishing vessels.
    • CG inspected vessels carrying more than 6 passengers.
    • Towboats more than 25.7 feet/7.8 meters in length.
    • Vessels of more than 100 tons certified to carry at least 1 passenger.
    • Cargo ships over 300 tons.
  4. Any vessel, including a recreational vessel, on an international voyage.
Radio Listening Watch

Vessels not required to carry a radio (e.g. recreational vessels less than 65.6 feet/20 meters in length), but which voluntarily carry a radio, must maintain a watch on channel 16 (156.800 MHz) whenever the radio is operating and not being used to communicate. Such vessels may alternatively maintain a watch on VHF channel 9 (156.450 MHz), the boater calling channel.

Distress Call Procedures
  1. Make sure radio is on
  2. Select Channel 16
  3. Press/Hold the transmit button
  4. Clearly say: MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY
  5. Also give:
    • Vessel Name and/or Description
    • Position and/or Location
    • Nature of Emergency
    • Number of People on Board
  6. Release transmit button
  7. Wait for 10 seconds – If no response Repeat "MAYDAY" Call.
False Distress Alerts

It is unlawful to intentionally transmit a false distress alert, or to unintentionally transmit a false distress alert without taking steps to cancel that alert.

For further information:

FCC website
USCG website

For a listing of VHF Channels and Frequencies go here.

VHF Marine Radio Channels

The chart below contains a partial listing of channels recreational boaters should be familiar with:

Channel Type of Message and Use
06 Intership Safety: Used for ship-to-ship safety messages and search messages and ships and aircraft of the Coast Guard.
09 Boater Calling: FCC has established this channel as a supplementary calling channel for recreational boaters in order to relieve congestion on VHF Channel 16.
13, 67 Navigation Safety (Also known as the Bridge-to-Bridge channel): Ships greater than 20 meters in length maintain a listening watch on this channel in US waters. This channel is available to all ships. Messages must be about ship navigation (i.e. passing or meeting other ships). You must keep your messages short. Your power output must not be more than one watt. This is also the main working channel at most locks and drawbridges. Channel 67 is for lower Mississippi River only.
16 International Distress, Safety and Calling: Use this channel to get the attention of another station (calling) or in emergencies. Ships required to carry a radio maintain a listening watch on this channel. USCG and most coast stations also maintain a listening watch on this channel.
21A, 23A, 83A U.S. Coast Guard only
22A Coast Guard Liaison and Maritime Safety Information Broadcasts: Announcements of urgent marine information broadcasts and storm warnings on Channel 16.
24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 84, 85, 85, 87 Public Correspondence (Marine Operator): Use these channels to call the marine operator at a public station. By contacting a public coast station, you can make and receive calls from telephones on shore. Except for dis-tress calls, public stations usually charge for this service.
70 Digital Selective Calling: Use this channel for distress and safety calling and for general purpose calling using only digital selective calling (DSC) techniques.

Note: The U.S. Coast Guard will not be equipped to respond to DSC distress calls on Channel 70 until 2006—use Channel 16.

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