One of the items we purchased this offseason was a new VHF radio. Pegu Club had an old working radio (plus we have two handheld VHFs), but technology has greatly improved since it was installed an unknown number of years ago. We decided to purchase a Standard Horizon GX2200 primarily because we’ve been pleased with our Standard Horizon handhelds, and this model has a built-in AIS receiver along with DSC and GPS.
AIS is an automatic tracking system used on ships (and an increasing number of recreational boats). When a ship shows up on AIS you can see (among other information) its position along with its closest point of approach. This allows you to determine whether you are on a collision course, and you can also contact the ship to communicate with them if necessary.
We had a choice between getting a transceiver which would also allow us to receive other ships’ positions plus send them our position, or a receive-only system. The transceiver was more expensive (to the tune of several hundred dollars) and more complicated to install, so we decided to get a receive-only with the theory that if we know where the cargo ships are, then we can simply stay out of their way. They will also be able to see us on their radar (assuming they are paying attention to it). People can get quite passionate about the pros and cons of receive-only AIS, but this was the best choice for us for now. If we decide that we want a transceiver in the future, we can certainly get one, but at least now we have something.
As for the DSC (Digital Selective Calling) on the VHF, DSC allows boaters to make private ship-to-ship calls using an MMSI number. More importantly, it allows you to send a mayday with a push of a button that will identify your vessel to the Coast Guard, along with your location and the nature of your emergency, while simultaneously sending a distress message to every vessel within line of sight. When the distress signal is sent, the radio watches for an acknowledgement (at which point you can switch to channel 16 to communicate the nature of the emergency) but if no one responds it will rebroadcast the signal every four minutes.
In order for the DSC to be effective, you need to register it and obtain an MMSI (maritime mobile service identity) number. MMSI numbers are entered into a database that helps speed a rescue, but if you get an MMSI number through Boat US the number is only entered in the U.S. Coast Guard’s database. If you are going to be in international waters, then you are supposed to have a federal Ship Station license and a Restricted Radio Operators Permit in order to legally communicate with a foreign port. Additionally, when you get an MMSI from the FCC the number goes into an international database so that foreign rescue services (plus the U.S. Coast Guard) will get your information if you send a Mayday with the DSC.
I didn’t have much success using my Google-fu to try to find out how to get an MMSI number through the FCC. Browsing through the FCC website itself was not very helpful, and I work as a municipal attorney so I’m used to translating government-speak. The forms were dozens of pages long and looked extremely complicated. Ultimately I decided to pick up the phone and call them. I know – what a concept. Speak to someone on the telephone!
Bracing myself for a difficult experience, I was pleasantly surprised to speak to a cheerful person who knew exactly what I needed. Within five minutes she had sent me an email with links to the appropriate forms which were substantially more simple than trying to slog through a paper copy. Each web page had a handy FAQ on it which answered the few questions that I had, and in ten minutes I had filled out the forms and paid our money ($220 for the ship station license – valid for ten years, and $70 for the Restricted Radio Operators Permit which is valid for life). Two days later, the MMSI number and licenses had been e-mailed to me and we were all set. If anyone reading this post is planning to boat in international waters (and yes, this includes the Bahamas), do yourself a favor and call the FCC to get the links for the on-line applications for the MMSI number. Do not try to fill out the forms by hand!!
Installing the VHF was almost as simple as applying for the MMSI number. Once we decided on a location we realized we needed install a backing plate because the screws were a bit too long and were going to penetrate the deck above – not what we wanted! Smaller screws wouldn’t give us enough bite, so we decided to use 5200 to attach a piece of Starboard for a bit more thickness, and then screwed the VHF into the Starboard. We ran the wires to a bus bar that we had previously installed for items that we wanted to have directly connected to the battery (like our solar panel controller and our Nature’s Head fan), put some plastic covering on the wires to make it look a bit nicer, and we were finished. I think we might finally be getting the hang of this electric stuff. Another project crossed off the list!