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VHF Marine Radio in Canada: Distress Channels & Information

September 28, 2022

VHF marine radio is an incredibly useful communication tool to have on the water. Using VHF radio to call for help can make all the difference in an emergency situation. However, the use of VHF radio in Canada is subject to strict regulations that boaters must follow.

Find out everything you need to know about VHF marine radio in Canada in this article!

VHF marine radio distress calls

VHF channel 16 is used to make distress calls in emergency situations. The Canadian Coast Guard continuously monitors channel 16 and provides important weather alerts for boaters. Furthermore, all vessels are expected to keep channel 16 on or scan it regularly while underway, so any boats nearby should be able to hear the distress call and respond quickly in the event of an emergency.

Why is VHF radio the best way to call for help?

VHF radio is considered to be the most effective tool for marine communication and distress calls for several reasons. It has more consistent reception than cell phones and is designed to withstand rough weather and moisture. A distress call on VHF radio will be heard by all other boats in the area as well as the Coast Guard, whereas a call made by phone will only reach the intended recipient. Finally, the source of a VHF signal can be located, meaning that first responders will be able to find the vessel more easily, even in fog.

All of these factors make VHF marine radio an indispensable piece of boating safety equipment to have on board.

How to make a distress call with VHF radio

In a life-threatening situation (e.g. severe injury following a boat propeller strike or running aground), make a distress call by repeating “MAYDAY” three times on channel 16. Remember to state the name of the vessel, its position, the nature of the emergency, your radio call sign, the number of people on board and the type of assistance you need so that first responders have all of the relevant information.

For situations where you need help but aren’t in immediate danger, you can repeat “PAN PAN” three times instead of “MAYDAY” and relay the same information on channel 16. Note that making a distress call needlessly is considered a boating offence.

Canadian marine VHF channels

While channel 16 is recognized as a distress frequency worldwide, other marine VHF channels may be used for different purposes from region to region. In Canada, there are a few regional disparities between the East and West Coasts. Here are the main marine VHF channels used in Canada:

  • Channel 6: General working channel for intership communication
  • Channel 9: Working channel on the West Coast
  • Channel 16: Emergency channel. Can also be used for hailing, but boats must quickly agree on and switch to a different channel to continue the conversation
  • Channel 21B, 23B, 25B, 28B and 83B: Continuous Marine Broadcast (CMB) Service
  • Channel 68: General channel for recreational vessel communication
  • Channel 70: Digital Selective Calling (DSC) only – voice prohibited

The Restricted Operator Certificate and other requirements

Pleasure craft operators in Canada are legally required to hold a Restricted Operator Certificate Maritime (ROC-M) in order to use a VHF marine radio. The certification program is managed by the Canadian Power and Sail Squadrons (CPS). Those wishing to certify will need to study basic radio procedures, the phonetic alphabet, and penalties for improper radio use before taking an exam to obtain their certificate.

Additionally, vessels sailing outside Canadian waters will need their own Maritime Mobile Radio Station license, which includes an official maritime radio call sign. This license is issued by Industry Canada and must be renewed on a yearly basis.

Boaters are also required to hold a pleasure craft operator card in order to operate a recreational vessel on Canadian waters.

Get your pleasure craft operator card from Drive a Boat Canada!

Drive a Boat Canada is an official provider of the Canadian boater safety course. Our Transport Canada-accredited course teaches aspiring boaters everything they need to know to take the exam to obtain their boating license, also known as the pleasure craft operator card. Register for the course today to learn all about boating safety and regulations and begin your nautical journey!