Carry the right equipment for your voyage
If you don't take your boat more than 30 nautical miles off the UK coast, you'll need to carry:
- a very high frequency (VHF) radio, preferably equipped with digital selective calling (DSC)
- a Navtex receiver
- an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB)
DSC, Navtex and EPIRBs are components of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) – the international communication safety system for ships at sea.
It's used for all types of communication, including:
- emergency and distress messages
- ship-to-ship communications
- ship-to-shore communications
Some vessels, like commercial vessels over 300 gross tonnage, must fit GMDSS equipment. You're not legally required to have it for your pleasure craft, but some components are highly recommended, like a VHF radio with DSC.
Very high frequency (VHF) radio
At the very least, you should have a VHF radio on board your pleasure craft. This means that you can communicate with the coastguard or another boat if you get into difficulty. Safety information, like weather information and navigational warnings, is also broadcast over VHF by the coastguard.
You can contact Maritime and Coastguard Agency operation centres on VHF within 20 to 30 miles of the coast.
VHF radios with digital selective calling (DSC)
Most modern VHF radios now come with DSC, which is a tone signalling system that operates on VHF channel 70. You can make routine calls to other boats or Maritime and Coastguard Agency operation centres with DSC by using their unique nine digit identification number (this is the maritime mobile service identity, MMSI).
In an emergency, you can use DSC to send important information about your boat and your situation at the touch of a button.
- How to call for help in an emergency at sea
- GMDSS: the benefits of Digital Selective Calling (GOV.UK website)
Navtex receivers and emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs)
With a Navtex receiver, you'll be able to automatically receive international maritime safety information, including:
- navigational warnings
- weather forecasts and warnings
- search and rescue notices
Most receivers allow you to either record or print the information.
An EPIRB is a type of locator beacon, which transmits a one-way distress signal via satellite. In an emergency, for example if your boat is sinking, the EPIRB can be activated manually or automatically. It will send its position to the nearest Maritime and Coastguard Agency operation centre.
Some EPIRBs also provide a homing beacon, which helps search and rescue teams to locate your boat.
You need to register your EPIRB so that full details of your boat are known if it's activated. Registration is free.
Communication equipment for off-shore voyages
If you take your boat more than 30 nautical miles off the UK coast, you'll need to carry additional communication equipment.
A satellite telephone is a type of mobile phone that connects to satellites instead of the normal telephone network. You can use satellite telephones at sea where mobile phones are out of range.
Satellite phones also use international standard dialling codes and telephone numbers. This means that you can pre-programme the phone contacts menu with the telephone numbers of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency operation centres you might need to contact in an emergency.
Medium frequency (MF) and high frequency (HF) radios
Medium frequency (MF) and high frequency (HF) radios are like VHF radios, but work in different areas further away from the coast.
MF works up to 150 nautical miles away from the coast and HF works worldwide, depending on atmospheric conditions and the frequency in use.
Inmarsat C allows you to send and receive high-speed data, email and telephone messages via satellite when you're out of range of land communications.
Radio licences and training
As an owner of a pleasure craft, you'll need two radio licences:
- a Ship Radio Licence
- a Short Range Certificate
A Ship Radio Licence is needed for all VHF radios with or without DSC. When you receive your licence, you are issued with a call sign that uniquely identifies your vessel and is recognisable worldwide. You use your call sign to identify your vessel when communicating with the coastguard and other boats.
If you have DSC, you should also request an MMSI when you get your licence.
To apply for a free Ship Radio Licence, visit the Ofcom website.
A Short Range Certificate licenses the operator to use the VHF radio. You must not send general transmissions on VHF without one.
If you have DSC, you'll need a DSC endorsement on your certificate.
To use MF, HF and satellite communications equipment, you'll need a Long Range Certificate.