The sea never changes and its works, for all the talk of men, are wrapped in mystery.     - Joseph Conrad


Signals & Communications

Sailing is not all solitude.  There comes a time, if just for safety's sake, when you need to  communicate with others.


VHF (Very High Frequency) Radio

Every cruising boat should have a VHF radio whether stationary or hand held.

Each VHF radio is considered a radio station by the Federal Communications Commission.

Channel 16 is used for emergencies and for hailing.  Law enforcement agencies and the Coast Guard monitor channel 16.

Although you hail on channel 16, you never use it for conversation.  Immediately communicate with the party you hail and arrange to switch to another "working" channel.

VHF Channel for US Radio Users

Distress, safety, hailing ..............................................16

Intership safety ........................................................... 6

Coast Guard communications ................................. 22A

Port Operations ... 1, 5. 65A, 6A, 12,73, 14, 74, 63, 20, 77

Navigational ......................................................... 13, 67

Non-commercial ............................ 68, 9, 69, 71, 78A, 72

Commercial .... 1, 7A, 8, 9, 10, 18A, 19A, 79A, 67, 77,  80A, 88A, 63

Public Correspondence .... 24, 84, 25, 85, 26, 86, 27, 87, 28


How to Make a Distress Call

The distress call consists of:
--the distress signal MAYDAY (spoken three times);

--the words THIS IS (spoken once);

--the call sign or name of the vessel in distress (spoken three times).

The distress message follows immediately and consists of:

--the distress signal MAYDAY;

--the call sign and name of the vessel in distress:

--particulars of its position (latitude and longitude, or true bearing and distance from a known geographical position);

--the nature of the distress;

--the kind of assistance desired;

--the number of persons aboard and the condition of any injured;

--present seaworthiness of the vessel;

--description of the vessel (length, type, cabin, masts, power, color of hull, superstructure, trim, etc.);

--any other information which might facilitate the rescue, such as display of a surface-to-air identification signal or a radar reflector;

--your listening frequency and schedule;

--THIS IS (call sign and name of vessel in distress). OVER.

Only use MAYDAY when loss of life or vessel is imminent.  

Use PAN PAN (pronounced "pon-pon")  when you have an urgent message concerning safety of a person or vessel.

Use SECURITE (pronounced "say-curatay") when you have a message about navigational safety or weather.

Phonetic Alphabet

A - Alpha J - Juliet S - Sierra
B - Bravo K - Kilo T - Tango
C - Charlie L - Lima U - Uniform
D - Delta M - Mike V - Victor
E - Echo N - November W - Whiskey
F - Foxtrot O - Oscar X - X-ray
G - Golf P - Papa Y - Yankee
H - Hotel Q - Quebec Z - Zulu
I - India R - Romeo  

Weather Warning Flags and Signals

Visual Distress Signals

Vessels less than 40 feet are not specifically required to carry a whistle, horn, or bell; however, navigation rules require sound signal under certain circumstances, so a sailor must be capable of producing those sounds by some means.

Boats over 40 feet must have a power whistle or horn plus a ship's bell (for anchoring in fog) and three daytime and three nighttime visual distress signals (i.e. flares).  

Recreational boats less than 16 feet are exempt from the flare requirement.

Sound Signals

1 short - moving starboard, leaving you to port

2 short - moving port, leaving you to starboard

3 short - moving astern

4 or more - danger

Twice short, turn to port 


Double blast, starboard pass

Three in turn, power astern

Quick five to stay alive

Inland waters -  You must signal intent.  

If someone toots, agree by repeating.  Disagree by using the danger signal.

Offshore waters - Indicate intent by movement and position of your boat (i.e. rudder operations).

Fog Signals

Fog Horn Signals

----- o o   (1 long, 2 short every 2 minutes) - Sailboat

-----   (1 long every 2 minutes) - Power boat

----- -----   (2 long every 2 minutes) - Power boat that is stopped

o ----- o   (1 short, 1 long, 1 short) - Warning signal

----- o o o   (1 long, 3 short every 2 minutes) - Vessel in tow


Fog Bells

ooooo   (5 rings every 2 minutes) - Vessel at anchor

o o o  oooo  o o o   (3 rings, 4 quick rings, 3 rings every 2 minutes) - Vessel aground

Lighthouse Signals

Interpreting the Signal

Flashing    o  o  o  o

Group flashing    oo   oo   oo   oo

Occulting     -----  -----  -----  -----

Isophasic     ---     ---     ---    ---

Composite    oo    o    oo    o

Sound signals - DIA (diaphone) -grunting sound

Interpreting lighthouse chart designations

Fl 15s 358ft 25M  

A lighthouse 358 feet above mean water level, flashing once every 15 seconds, range of visibility is 25 miles (M = miles, m = meters)


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