(The Captain’s Corner is a series to explain and go over safety information that you can use out on the water. It is meant to provide any legal or law knowledge. You, as the captain of your vessel, are responsible for knowing the laws of your area.)


Every boat on Lake St Clair should have a VHF radio. Now that you have one, great, How do you use it?

VHF Radio Use for Lake St Clair:

As part of The Jobbie Crew’s commitment to safety and safe boating practices, we present our next segment: VHF radio use on the Great Lakes.

Quite simply, there are areas (yes, even on Lake St Clair) where cell phone coverage is spotty to the point of non-existence. For safety reasons, every boat should be equipped with a VHF radio. You never know when your phone is going to be wet or battery die when you need it the most.

Get a VHF Radio

VHF radios have been around a long time and every boat should be equipped with one at all times. There are many models from small handheld ones under $100 to permanent installed ones (still under $100) that will sync up with your other electronics to automatically send your coordinates if you make a distress call.

Okay, so you’ve got your radio, now what do you do? When out on the water, you should make a habit of leaving the radio turned on and tuned to channel 16. Channel 16 is the emergency channel that law enforcement and the US Coast Guard monitor 24/7. You never know when you might be the closest boat in the area to an emergency. As with every emergency, every second counts!

Every second counts

Proper radio use

In any emergency, the most important rule is to try to remain calm. For anyone to help you, they have to understand the emergency and how best to respond. When you make you call, try to remember to use the following procedure:

Tune your radio to channel 16.

In as calm and clear as you can, say:

  4. Give the position of your vessel by latitude or longitude or by bearing (true or magnetic) and your approximate distance to a well-known landmark such as a navigational aid or small island, or in any terms which will assist a responding station in locating the vessel in distress. Include any information on vessel movement such as course, speed and destination.
  5. State your emergency
  6. What assistance do you need
  7. Number of persons onboard
  8. Any other information which might facilitate rescue, such as length or tonnage of vessel, number of persons needing medical attention, color hull, cabin, masks, etc.
  9. End your transmission with the word “OVER”

Stay by the radio if possible. Even after the message has been received, the Coast Guard/Law Enforcement can find you more quickly if you can transmit a signal on which a rescue boat or aircraft can home in on.

Wait two minutes to rebroadcast and give time for the Coast Guard or Law enforcement time to reply


If you hear a distress call

If you hear a distress message from a vessel and it is not answered, then you must answer. If you are reasonably sure that the distressed vessel is not in your vicinity, you should wait a short time for others to acknowledge.

If you are in the vicinity of the emergency be sure to let the Coast Guard know who you are and what your intentions are


Other Hailing words you might need or hear

While MAYDAY is reserved for true emergencies there are two other “HAILING” words that can be used on channel 16:



PAN-PAN is used in the case of a non-urgent manner.

Examples include:

Towing: You broke down and need a tow. Assuming you are not in a shipping channel with a Great Lakes Freighter bearing down on you. You can also hail Tow Boat US if in US waters and Canada’s TowBoat if in Canadian waters. Both companies monitor channel 16. They both have unlimited towing plans that are well worth the money. The average tow is upwards of $500 where both plans are under $75 a year for unlimited towing.

Need a tow?

Medical : If someone becomes injured or in need of medical help at sea. If the vessel is heading to shore and wants to be met by an ambulance crew, the local Coast Guard station can arrange this. A doctor or other trained medical advisor may also be available on the radio, perhaps by patching through via telephone from ashore or from a nearby vessel. If there is immediate risk to life, then a “mayday” call is more appropriate.

Man-overboard recovery: If safely recovering a person overboard, a “pan-pan” call on VHF makes other nearby vessels aware of the situation and ensures that they keep a lookout, avoid coming too close, avoid excessive wake or otherwise interfering. It also alerts them to the fact that the recovery vessel is maneuvering for urgent life-saving and is therefore ‘restricted in its ability to maneuver’ in accordance with the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS). If the recovery vessel has lost sight of the person overboard, if the person overboard loses consciousness, if there is a danger of hypothermia or any other grave risk to life, then a mayday call is more appropriate so that other nearby vessels may offer help with the search and recovery, rather than keeping clear.

PAN-PAN example call:

  3. We have a passenger that needs medical attention for a large gash on her foot that will require stitches.
  4. We are heading back to South River Boat Launch requesting that medical personal meet us there. ETA is 15 minutes

At this point who ever answers will probably send you to another channel so they can get more details and advise. Always stay by the radio for follow up



The last HAILING call you might hear or use is “SECURITY, SECURITY, SECURITY” (SAY-CURE-IT-TAY).

This is the International Safety Signal and is a message about some aspect of navigational safety or a weather warning.

If you are cruising down the middle channel and see a huge log or part of a tree in the middle of the channel you should notify other boaters in the area.

An example call might sound like:

  1. Security, Security, Security; this is Vessel Name/Call Sign
  2. There is a large log in the middle of the channel in front of Browns on the middle channel. Take caution

At that time, someone may request more information and have you go to another channel.

Here is a list of common channels and how they are used on the Great Lakes

Click here to download a printable copy

Channel Usage
16 DISTRESS SAFETY AND CALLING – Use this channel to get the attention of another station (calling) or in emergencies (distress and safety).
22 COAST GUARD LIAISON – Use this channel to talk to the Coast Guard (but first make contact on Channel 16)
9, 68, 69, 71, 72, 78,

79, 80

NONCOMMERCIAL – Working channels for voluntary boats. Messages must be about the needs of the ship. Typical uses include fishing reports, rendezvous, scheduling repairs and berthing information. Use Channels 67 and 72 only for ship-to-ship messages. Channel 68 is strongly discouraged as a choice for recreational vessel ship-to-ship communication in Canada, as it is the only channel authorized for use by Canadian shore facilities—for both hailing and working. Not only should 68 be kept clear for that use, but also your personal conversations on that channel are likely to be overheard by anyone within earshot of radio speakers at every marina within ten miles!  For much the same reason, channel 9 should be used with restraint in the U.S.; for, although U.S. shore facilities may use channel 16, channel 9 is often their preferred working channel.
7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 18,19, 67,79, 80, COMMERCIAL – Working channels for working ships only. Messages must be about business or the needs of the ship. Use channels 8, 67, 72 and 88 only for ship-to-ship messages.
24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 84, 85,

86, 87, 88

PUBLIC CORRESPONDENCE (MARINE OPERATOR) – Use these channels to call the marine operator at a public coast station. By contacting a public coast station, you can make and receive calls from telephones on shore. Except for distress calls, public coast stations usually charge for this service.
12, 14, 20, 65, 66, 73, 74, 77 PORT OPERATIONS – These channels are used in directing the movement of ships in or near ports, locks or waterways. Messages must be about the operational handling movement and safety of ships. In certain major ports, Channels 11,12 and are not available for general port operations messages. Use channel 20 only for ship-to-coast messages. Channel 77 is limited to intership communications to and from pilots
13, 67 NAVIGATIONAL – (Also known as the bridge-to-bridge channel.) This channel is available to all ships. Messages must be about ship navigation, for example, 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.
Wx-1 162.55

Wx-2 162.4

Wx-3 162.475

WEATHER – On these channels you may receive weather broadcasts of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. These channels are only for receiving. You cannot transmit on them


Making Hoax radio calls is no joke. There are serious fines and even jail time that come with it when you get caught! plus, if someone really needs help and they are chasing a false call you could be found liable.

6 years in prison
$250,000 criminal fine
$5,000 civil fine
Reimbursing the U.S. Coast Guard for the cost of performing the search which as this writing range from $2,500 – $25,000 depending which boat they send and $15,000 and hour for the helicopter! Source

Yes, they have the equipment to triangulate your call from the fist call.


See you out on the water

Captain Jim


Special thanks to Capt Lisa for help on this article

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