Emergency Calling

vhf-dsccell-phoneWho are you going to call in an emergency when on the water? Do you call VHF 16, *16 or 911?

When you buy a car, you not only have to learn to drive, you must also learn the “Rules of the Road“.

When you buy a boat, it isn’t law, but is is common sense to learn how to handle your boat and learn the “Rules of the Water“.

Taking courses and lessons is a good place to start and through organizations like Power and Sail Squadron, you will take a VHF/DSC Radio Course and learn how to use it—including in emergency situations.

It is just good common sense to have a

VHF/DSC Radio on your boat. It is also good common sense to have a GPS on board so that you know your location (lat and long) on the water to give to emergency personnel.  

It is also good common sense to have a cell phone or smart phone on board.

They are your lifelines that could save a life! Who are you going to call in an emergency?

After many calls to the Office of Boating Safety, Transport Canada, Coast Guard, Power Squadron, OPP, and research on the Canadian and US Coast Guard websites, the short answer is—For Emergencies on the Water, Call VHF 16.

Obviously, you have to rely on your own common sense when you can’t reach Coast Guard on VHF 16. For example, on a small lake where there is no Coast Guard, or a larger body of water where the VHF signal is too weak. In these cases, you could try Cell *16 or Cell 911. Whether you call Coast Guard on VHF 16, *16 or 911, they will respond and, in most areas, co-ordinate with each other.

Most effective and reliable way to issue a distress alert

The following information was obtained from Canadian Coast Guard and US Coast Guard. For other countries, contact your Coast Guard or Power Squadron.

Marine VHF radio is generally the most effective and reliable means of issuing a distress alert. Keep it tuned to Channel 16, know where you are at all times and be prepared to describe your specific location.

When you replace or buy a new VHF radio, make sure it has the new Digital Selective Calling (DSC) feature on channel 70. This feature provides automatic digital distress alerts. (In Canada, Coast Guard has upgraded its facilities to provide DSC channel 70 service in many areas.)

Remember, VHF radio channel 16 is used for emergency and calling purposes only. Once you call another vessel on channel 16, take your conversation to a working frequency to continue. VHF channel 70 should be used only 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.

For your DSC equipped VHF, obtain a nine-digit Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number to get maximum benefits from this automated system. Your owner’s manual will explain this feature and how to make a DSC call to another vessel or to a shore station that has DSC capability. These numbers are assigned, free-of-charge, by Industry Canada. Call Industry Canada 1-800-328-6189 or visit US Coast Guard for more information.

On a VHF radiotelephone, 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 say “Mayday” three times. Then give the name of your boat, 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 boat’s motor has quit and you are unable to reach shore) use channel 16 and say “Pan-Pan” three times. Then give the name of your boat, its position, the nature of your problem and the type of assistance needed.

An important feature of a VHF/DSC radio is its ability to allow mariners to instantly send an automatically formatted distress alert to the Coast Guard or other rescue authority anywhere in the world. Digital selective calling also allows mariners to initiate or receive distress, urgency, safety and routine radiotelephone calls to or from any similarly equipped vessel or shore station, without requiring either party to be near a radio loudspeaker. DSC acts like the dial and bell of a telephone, allowing you to “direct dial” and “ring” other radios, or allow others to “ring” you, without having to listen to a speaker. New VHF and HF radiotelephones have DSC capability.

Currently, all VHF marine 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 and Sail Squadrons at 1-888-CPS-BOAT for more information on procedures and radiotelephone license requirements. In the US, contact Coast Guard.

When on the water, call Coast Guard

Call Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16 – Most Effective Method

Marine VHF radio Channel 16 is generally the most effective and reliable means of issuing a distress alert. Know where you are at all times and be prepared to describe your specific location.

  • VHF channel 16 (156.8 MHz) is monitored 24 hours a day by Coast Guards around the world. In addition, all sea bound vessels are required to monitor channel 16 VHF when on the water, except when communicating on other marine channels for legitimate business or operational reasons. Coast Guards and others are permitted to broadcast short informative safety messages on channel 16; however, it is an offence in most countries to make false mayday calls. When using the channel to call another boat or land station, the call has to be switched to a working channel after the initial response in order to keep channel 16 available to others.
  • Coast Guard is in touch with all resources—land and water, including police and military. They look at the big picture and co-ordinate search and rescue through JRCC (Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centres).
  • Boaters are trained through boating courses to monitor VHF Channel 16 (call channel), have taken a VHF Radio Course and have their Radio Operators Certificate. They are required to render assistance in an emergency in co-operation with Coast Guard.
  • If you have a poor communication with Coast Guard, other boaters will do a May Day Relay for you.
  • This will most likely get you help much quicker, since other boaters who are in a position to help may be much closer than Coast Guard.
  • Coast Guard can locate you when you give them your lat and long from your GPS. Coast Guard may be able to locate you by triangulating your position from your VHF transmission. It depends on many variables (tower location, boat location, etc).
  • If your VHF is DSC equipped, pressing the red button will instantly broadcast your Mayday to Coast Guard with your name, description of your boat and your lat and long. Be sure you have your information entered correctly and have it linked to your GPS.

Call Coast Guard on your Cell Phone

With a cellular phone, you can contact Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Centers directly by dialing *l6 or #16 depending on your provider. (Note: contact your wireless provider to find out if *16 is available in your area) However, a cell phone is not a reliable substitute for a marine radio and not the best means of issuing a distress call.

Cell phones can lose reception or get wet and damaged. Calling from your cell does not alert other vessels close to you that you are in distress—the occupants of those other vessels could be the ones to help if they could hear you.

Unlike VHF transmissions, some wireless phone signals cannot be followed back to your location.

Other boaters won’t hear your call, but Coast Guard can put out a Mayday for you to alert all boaters in your area.

Each time information is relayed, it delays response time.

Call 911 on your Cell Phone

For boaters who can’t contact Coast Guard with VHF or Cell Phone, call 911 on your Cell Phone.

  • 911 won’t know your location from a cell phone and no other boaters will hear your call.
  • Be sure to give 911 your lat and long (from your GPS) along with the nature of your distress, so they can pass it on to Coast Guard.
  • Relaying information from agency to agency takes time resulting in delayed response time over a VHF call directly to Coast Guard.

Send Text Message on your Cell Phone

If you can’t reach CG or 911, try texting one of your friends (Coast Guard and OPP do not receive texts yet) to forward your distress to Coast Guard *16 or 911. Quite often, when your phone has no signal, texts get through (may take several minutes or longer). This method is not guaranteed but worth a try if nothing else works.

When in a Marina/Harbour – Call 911

If you are in a harbour or marina or tied to a dock or shore, most Canadian agencies agree that calling 911 should be your first choice, because they consider that you are not “on the water”.

Ask your marina/harbour for their emergency procedure so that you have the numbers to call and the correct description of your location (address) for 911 or Coast Guard depending on your requirement, the location, the situation and the circumstances.

When you call 911, it is good common sense to send someone to meet the emergency vehicles to guide them to the patient/problem.

If they don’t have an emergency procedure, request them to have a meeting with all emergency agencies locally and establish one, then distribute it to all boaters. Each marina/harbour is different and local responders need to be in the loop.

Prepare your Crew and Guests

Once you have the “on-the-water” and “in-the-harbour” procedures have a copy on your boat and review it with your crew and guests. Unlike TV shows, 911 or Coast Guard 16 cannot always instantly triangulate your location on a cell phone signal; therefore, the person making the call must be able to give the operator the physical address or location.

When visiting other marinas/harbours, be sure to ask for their emergency procedure as well as contact names and numbers and the street address. Share with your crew and guests. It may be different than your home port.

In an emergency (land or water), it is common sense to have a simple procedure to follow; not to wonder who to call and how, if an emergency arises.

Information obtained from

  • Canadian Coast Guard, Sarnia
  • Industry Canada
  •  Canadian Coast Guard
  • US Coast Guard Boating Safety
  • US Coast Guard Homeland Security

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