Recreational Boating Safety – Call for Phillip Morris!

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
If you watch television stations that have advertising, you probably realize that half of what you watch consists of endless (or so it seems) spot commercials lasting from as few as 15 seconds up to two minutes in length. Prior to 1970, when the FCC prohibited cigarette commercials, some of the most entertaining commercials were cigarette commercials. We older boaters remember many of those commercials as well as their tag lines. Benson and Hedges cigarettes were “just a silly millimeter longer.” “LSMFT” stood for Lucky Strikes Means Fine Tobacco. Phillip Morris’s trademark commercial consisted of a hotel bellboy ostensibly trying to locate a hotel patron who had a phone call waiting for him. The bellboy carried a silver tray with a pack of Phillip Morris cigarettes prominently displayed on the tray while the bellboy moved about the lobby shouting “Call for Phillip Morris!” The actor playing the bellboy was truly a bellboy who was discovered by an ad executive who represented the Phillip Morris brand.

The most important thing about the cigarette commercial was the clear and loud voice reaching out for “Phillip Morris” and that voice being clearly heard above the loud din of a crowded hotel lobby. When you are out on your boat, you want that same effect whenever you need to reach someone, and that effect is accomplished with a marine VHF/FM radio. Another thing about the commercial was its brevity: only four words were used to communicate that a phone call was waiting for Mr. Phillip Morris, although the commercial was really just a play on the standard paging method used in hotel lobbies. The Coast Guard uses three-word calling messages. This column will discuss the best way to communicate on the water.

Outdated Communication Methods
When you are out there on the water, you should want the best way to reach the Coast Guard in a boating emergency. I find that a lot of recreational boaters make their own decisions about what they will use to communicate in an emergency, often using terrible logic when making their choice. Here are some of their reasonings:

  1. Yelling: this was the original communication method for Homo sapiens. I have had people tell me they never get out of view of land and that sound carries quite well over the water. My answer to that is that there are no Coast Guard watchstanders on shore listening for people yelling, and that most boating accidents with subsequent deaths occur within sight of land.
  2. Citizen Band (CB) Radios: CB radios were popular in the early 70s, and for a time the Coast Guard did monitor CB radio channels carried by boaters. Even then CB radios had very limited use because of the limited range and there being no dedicated channel for water use. I still run into people who have CB radios on their boat and who think that the Coast Guard monitors CB radios.
  3. Cell Phones: Cell phones are hit and miss on the water. They quickly get out of range of a cell tower as you get further from shore. We say they are better than nothing, but in no way do they replace a marine VHF/FM radio for communicating distress on the water.

Calls from the Coast Guard to Vessels
The Coast Guard makes urgency, safety and scheduled marine information broadcasts using various radio frequencies. The broadcasts include information vital to maritime interests in the vicinity of all U.S. waters (including the Caribbean). I strongly advocate that recreational boaters carry and use a marine VHF/FM radio because they will miss these important broadcasts if they don’t. The Coast Guard broadcasts three types of safety messages. They are Urgency Messages, Safety Messages, and Scheduled Messages.

Urgency Messages (PAN-PAN)
Urgency broadcasts are transmitted on Channel 16 (156.8 MHz) plus, if required, the district working frequency. Such broadcasts are preceded by the Urgency Signal, PAN-PAN (repeated three times; pronounced pawn-pawn). The Coast Guard broadcasts urgent information upon receipt, repeats it 15 minutes later, and repeats it during scheduled broadcasts. These messages are relative to the safety of ships, aircraft, persons, etc.

Safety Messages (SECURITE)
Safety broadcasts are announced on Channel 16 and then transmitted on Channel 22A (157.1 MHz). Such broadcasts are preceded by the Safety Signal, SECURITE (repeated three times; pronounced say-coo-ree-tay). The times of the broadcast are the same as for the Urgency broadcasts. These messages are relative to the safety of navigation or are important meteorological warnings. The call announcing the broadcast is made on the calling channels in the area concerned. In our area, where all vessels are required to monitor Channel 16, the Coast Guard Watchstander will announce “SECURITE, SECURITE, SECURITE. Attention all mariners: for an important marine information bulletin please go to Channel 22 Alpha.” The Watchstander will then switch to Channel 22A, repeat the Safety Signal, and then broadcast the information.

Marine Radio Channels
Although a marine radio has many channels that can be selected, a great many of the channels are assigned for specific uses. I won’t list them all here, as such a list would tend to confuse, but I will list the important channels for our area (Houston-Galveston). While you may listen on any channel, you should not transmit on channels not listed. Some channels you may use in an emergency, such as when you are dead in the water and unable to move out of the way of a vessel headed your way. The best way to avoid that situation is to stay out of the ship channel and use the barge ways to go north or south.

If you develop engine trouble you should immediately anchor so that you do not drift into the ship channel, and then notify the Coasty Guard on Channel 16 of your problem.

Important Houston-Galveston Channels
Ship traffic in the Houston Ship Channel (HSC) is directed by the Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Services (VTS), also known as Houston Traffic. Vessels 20 meters and longer must report to VTS when entering the HSC.

The important thing to remember about the above channels is that within the VTS controlled area, the Houston Ship Channel or the Galveston Channel, ships do not monitor CH 16 but use CH 13 instead. So if you are dead in the water in front of a ship bearing down on you, use CH 13 to contact the ship. They will probably not be monitoring CH 16. If you contact the Coast Guard on CH 16, you will be asked to change to another channel so that CH 16 becomes available for other emergencies.

Channels Available to Recreational Boaters
Although in an emergency you can use the above channels to contact a vessel or the Coast Guard, the channels reserved for non-commercial traffic are listed below. Channels not listed are for commercial traffic and port operations.

Keep in mind that not everyone follows the rules, so you may find commercial shrimpers and barge tows using one of the non-commercial channels. We find them using our reserved Coast Guard channels all the time. CH 9, designated the Boater Calling Channel, is where you want to establish contact with a fellow recreational boater. You have five channels to pick from, and if you can’t establish contact on the agree to channel, then swap back to CH 09 and pick another channel for your communications.

Must-Monitor Channels
No license is required to own and operate a marine VHF/FM radio. However, there is a responsibility to monitor the emergency channel for a particular area. In our area it is CH 16, with the caveat that monitoring CH 16 is not required of commercial traffic within the Houston Ship Channel. Instead, they monitor CH 13. If you are operating within the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), then you officially enter Houston VTS limits when you pass Mile Marker 345 headed west. That is when you should begin to monitor CH 13.

Make a Plan to Scan
All newer VHF/FM radios have the ability to scan selected channels. Rather than scan selected channels, most commercial vessels have multiple radios and use one radio for monitoring the emergency contact channel (16 or 13 as the case may be) and have a separate radio for operations. There is no need for a recreational boat to have multiple radios, but there is a need to always monitor the emergency contact channel. The best way to do that is to select both of the emergency contact channels (CH 13 and CH 16) plus any other channels you may be interested in, including CH 09, the Boater Calling Channel. Don’t overload the selected frequencies to scan, as you may miss an important transmission while the radio is scanning. For instance, when I am in my fishing boat, on my radio I scan CH 13, CH 16, CH 05A, CH 09, and CH 12 (I never go above ExxonMobil so I don’t monitor CH 11).

Registered VHF-FM Marine Radio (DSC) with GPS Input
DSC stands for Digital Selective Calling. Although most recreational vessels less than 65 feet long are not required to carry a DSC VHF-FM marine radio, the equipment is an important piece of safety gear. With a DSC VHF-FM marine radio, boaters are able to call for help if they need it, listen to updated weather forecasts and to Coast Guard broadcasts about other vessels in distress, and hear warnings from law enforcement authorities about hazards they may encounter. Cell phones may seem like attractive substitutes to some boaters, but they aren’t nearly as good. Cell phones require that the boater know the telephone number of the first responder they want to contact, and they cannot receive area wide warnings that are broadcast over marine radio. Cell phones are not typically maritime friendly. Coverage is not guaranteed in many maritime environments.

With the new Digital Selective Calling (DSC) system and the Coast Guard’s Rescue 21 radio system, DSC VHF-FM radios serve as emergency beacons that can tell first-responders precisely where a vessel in distress is located when properly registered with a GPS input. These days, DSC VHF-FM marine radios are relatively inexpensive. A bulkhead mounted marine radio is best, since it has a greater range than a handheld model, but even a handheld radio will provide some protection. The best advice about VHF-FM marine radios is: For safety’s sake, don’t leave port without one. The Lowrance Link-5 radio is just one example of a reasonably priced (less than $200) marine radio.

Use of DSC VHF-FM Marine Radios
DSC VHF-FM marine radios, when properly registered, enable mariners to send a specially formatted distress alert to the Coast Guard or other rescue authority anywhere in the world. The DSC program also permits mariners to initiate or receive radiotelephone calls to or from any vessel or shore station that is equipped with this system, whether they are emergency or routine transmissions. In effect, DSC automatically “dials” and “rings” other radios and allows them to “ring” the boater’s vessel without either party having to listen to a speaker.

The Coast Guard strongly urges that boaters take time to have their GPS receivers connect directly to the DSC systems on their radios and to obtain a nine digit Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number, which can be obtained for free from Boat U. S. and the Power Squadron at A properly registered MMSI will automatically identify their vessel to a nearby rescue station. When a boater presses the DSC button on the vessel’s radio, and selects the type of emergency he or she is encountering, the radio will transmit the boat’s position, name, owner, and situation. A Coast Guard dispatcher will then respond verbally. Once the Coast Guard has the information it needs, the dispatcher will transmit an “all-ship call” for any vessel near the distressed boat to respond and render assistance. He or she also will transmit the boat’s position to all vessels and aircraft assigned to come to its aid.

If you do not have a VHF/FM marine radio, or if you have one and do not monitor Channel 16 for Urgency and Safety Alerts, you may be putting yourself and your passengers unnecessarily in danger. Even a 5-watt handheld radio will do the trick. They can be purchased for around $100. The radio is not just for transmitting emergencies to the Coast Guard. It is more often used to help you keep abreast of critical marine information.

[BC: Apr-2-2024]

Facebook Twitter
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Site by