Marine radios

Find out about the types of marine radios, who must carry one, licensing requirements, rules and operating hints and making distress calls.

  Who must carry one and distress frequencies

You must carry a marine band radio if you go more than five miles from the mainland shore. The choice of radios is up to you, it can be 27 mHz, VHF or HF.

When at sea, you must have your radio turned on and tuned to the distress frequency.

  • For 27 mHz, this frequency is 27.88.
  • For VHF, this frequency is channel 16.
  • Not all Sea Rescue Groups monitor Channel 88 and VHF Channel 16.

Some of the VMR groups provide a log on and log off service, but not all and each operate at different times of the day and night. Therefore, contact your local radio base station prior to heading out on the water.

If your radio is logged on with a shore station such as a Sea Rescue Group, you can stay on the working frequency of the station.

When boating in the Northwest Cape region, we recommend that you carry a VHF radio. You must be qualified to use a VHF radio.

Please refer to the AMSA website for more information.

Opens in a new window Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA)

  Types of marine radios

There are 3 types of marine radios.

Radio type Facts and benefits Range Monitoring Emergency call information
27 - MHz
  • Cheap, easy to operate transceivers and are common in small boats.
  • Good for boat-to-boat communications.
  • Most have a dual watch capability where channel 88 and another channel can be monitored at the same time.
Line-of-sight and they are prone to interference noise. Most volunteer marine rescue groups (at least during daylight hours).
Sea rescue groups monitor the distress frequencies and their own working frequency.
Emergency and call up: Channel 88. Leave the radio on this channel to monitor any emergency traffic and respond to calls.
Establish communications on Channel 88, and then switch to another channel to have your conversation. Channel 86 is a supplementary distress frequency.
  • 27.86 Alternative emergency
  • 27.88 Emergency and calling
  • 27.90 Volunteer Sea Rescue
  • 27.91 Other clubs
  • 27.94 Club events
  • 27.96 Boat to boat
  • Little more expensive.
  • Easy to operate.
  • Dual watch capability to monitor channel 16 and another channel at same time.
Line-of-sight (extended by high aerials and repeater stations) with a very high quality signal. Rescue groups monitor the distress channel and their own working channel. The emergency and call up channel is channel 16. Leave the radio on this channel to monitor any emergency traffic and respond to any calls. Establish communications on channel 16, then switch to another channel to have your conversation. Channel 67 is a supplementary distress channel.
  • Expensive and more difficult to operate.
  • Reception is not always reliable and can be of low quality.
Much greater communication range (thousands of nautical miles) for vessels travelling long distances from shore. Rescue groups monitor the distress channel and their own working channel. The distress and calling channels are 4125, 6215 and 8291. Leave the radio on either of these channels to monitor any emergency traffic and respond to any calls. Establish communications on either channel 4125, 6215 or 8291, then switch to another channel if required to have your conversation.

  HF/VHF monitoring and emergency call information

Water Police: HF monitoring/emergency calls

A 24 hour, seven-days-a-week service operated from the Water Police Coordination Centre in North Fremantle monitors the 4125, 6215 and 8291 kHz distress and calling frequencies

This HF service covers WA coastal waters within 200 nautical miles of the shore from two new transceiver sites:

  • Canning Mills in Perth (call sign: Coast Radio Perth).
  • Port Hedland (call sign: Coast Radio Hedland).

The Water Police also broadcasts relevant Western Australian navigation warnings from Perth and Port Hedland on 8176 kHz.

Water Police: VHF monitoring/emergency calls

The Water Police monitors and provides local weather and navigation warning broadcasts on VHF channel 16/67 at 0718 and 1918 hours Western Standard Time (WST).

Severe weather warnings, when issued, are broadcast every two hours.

This VHF service only covers Perth metropolitan waters within 20 nautical miles of the shore.

  Licensing requirements and operating procedures

Operators of 27 MHz marine radios do not need to be licensed.

Operators of VHF and MF/HF marine radios must hold a Marine Radio Operator's Certificate of Proficiency. Courses for this qualification are run by maritime colleges and volunteer groups.

Details of licensing, including what certificates and required and how to obtain them, can be found on the Australian Communications and Media Authority website.

Station licence

A vessel fitted with MF/HF marine radio must hold an individual station licence (renewable each year). This will allocate a radio call-sign to that vessel.

Operating procedures

Standard radio procedures are used internationally. These are explained in detail in the VHF Marine Radio Operator's Handbook on the Australian Maritime College (AMC) website.

Opens in a new window Australian Maritime College: Marine radio operators handbook/marine VHF radio operators handbook

  Rules, operating hints and unauthorised use

  • The radio's squelch control not only removes background noise, it also weakens incoming signals. Tune it until it just suppresses the background noise.
  • Listen before transmitting to avoid interfering with another station calling on the same frequency.
  • Always use your call sign and/or the name of your boat for identification.
  • For normal (non-distress/urgency) messages, ask to switch to a working channel once you have contacted the other station.
  • Keep your message brief and clear.
  • Stop transmitting when requested to do so by a local marine radio station.
  • Always return your radio to either VHF channel 16 or 27.88 MHz when you have completed a call on another frequency.
  • Do not transmit unnecessarily or allow children to play with the radio.

Unauthorised use of radios

Marine radios have a very serious purpose.

Falsely indicating distress:

  • Wastes a lot of time and resources; possibly weakening the ability to respond to a genuine emergency.
  • Rightly carries a severe penalty.

To help prevent authorised use when not using your boat:

  • Remove your equipment.
  • Give it secure storage.

In an emergency the most vital link between the rescuer and the rescued is communications. For most boat users this usually refers to communications by radio. Correct operating procedures are vital to efficient working and safety of vessels and life in emergencies.

  Mobile phone is no substitute

Mobile telephones, although useful as a backup communications system, cannot replace a marine radio.

Reasons to choose radio over mobile phone:

  • Other boats in the area cannot hear emergency calls made on mobile telephones. A radio call is broadcast and nearby vessels tuned to the frequencies can provide a quicker response than boats called from the shore.
  • Mobile telephones are difficult to locate using direction finding equipment; where as a marine radio is much easier for searchers to locate.
  • Marine radio provides better coverage with fewer shadow areas.
  • Marine radio batteries are heavy duty and last longer than mobile telephone batteries.
  • There is no need to remember phone numbers.

If your radio is unusable, for example you are in a life raft, or sitting on an upturned boat, a mobile phone would be most welcome.

  Make a radio distress call

The distress call Mayday may be used only if the boat is threatened by grave and imminent danger. (for example, sinking or on fire and immediate assistance is required). This distress call has absolute priority over all other transmissions and may be transmitted only on the authority of the skipper or the person responsible for the safety of your vessel.

A Mayday call on one of the distress frequencies will attract the attention of land stations and other vessels in your area. Stay calm, explain the problem and give position and distress information clearly.

Distress or urgency

When transmitting a distress or urgency message, stay on VHF channel 16 or 27.88 MHz and do not change unless directed to by the local marine radio station; the rescuing vessel will communicate with you on that channel.

  1. Specify the nature of assistance you need.
  2. Follow directions of rescuers.
  3. Follow any instructions Sea Rescue or the rescuing vessel give you.
  4. Notify Sea Rescue if the situation changes or the danger has passed.

Silence periods

To increase the chances of a weak distress transmission being received, three minute periods of radio silence are observed on the hour and half hour on distress channels.

With the exception of distress traffic, all transmissions must cease during silence periods.

Mayday procedure

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday
This is [vessel name and/or call sign if you have one] (spoken three times)
Mayday [vessel name and/or call sign if you have one]
My position is ... [Details of the ship's position]
My vessel is ... [Nature of distress and assistance required is identified]
I have ... [Other information including number of persons on board]

This call can be repeated as often as necessary until answered. If no answer is received on distress frequencies, repeat the call on any frequency which might attract attention.

Mayday relay

If you hear a distress (Mayday) call and a coast station does not answer, render assistance where reasonable or attempt to relay the message.

Pan Pan urgency call

The urgency call should be used when the distress call cannot be justified but there is an urgent message to transmit concerning the safety of the vessel or the safety of a person (for example, mechanical breakdown, medical emergency or a man overboard).

Pan Pan procedure

Pan Pan, Pan Pan, Pan Pan
Hello all stations, Hello all stations, Hello all stations
This is [vessel name and/or call sign if you have one] (spoken three times)
My position is ... [Details of the vessel's position]
I require... [Details of assistance required and other information]

Urgency calls can be made on a distress frequency or any other frequency which may attract attention.

Making a distress call information sheet

The Making a Distress Call information sheet provides guidance on making distress or urgency calls, including silence periods, the Mayday procedure/relay and the Pan Pan procedure/relay.


A mobile phone is not accepted as a substitute for a radio, but it can be a useful back up. If you have to abandon your vessel, leaving the radio behind, you should certainly take your phone with you.

Download, print, laminate and display the document on your vessel.

  Safety calls (by radio)

The safety call could be made from a vessel for such messages as a warning of a partly submerged object. However, a safety call is more likely to be made by a coast station or sea rescue group and may include important strong weather warnings.

Safety call procedure:

Saycure-e-tay, Saycure-e-tay, Saycure-e-tay
Hello all stations, Hello all stations, Hello all stations.
This is ... [vessel name and/or call sign if you have one] (spoken three times).
A hazard exists ... [Details of the warning or announcement].

Safety calls can be announced on a distress frequency like VHF 16.

However, change to channel 67 or an appropriate working frequency to broadcast the actual safety message.

  Radio problem checklist


  • Is the correct frequency/channel selected?
  • Is the volume (AF gain) adjusted correctly?
  • Is the squelch adjusted correctly?
  • Is the RF gain set to maximum sensitivity?
  • Power supply: is the battery fully charged?
  • Antenna: are the leads and whip intact, not corroded, have proper earthing and connections in good order?


  • Time: is the other station keeping a listening watch?
  • Is a silence period in force?
  • HF: is the set tuned to the right frequency for the ship's position and time of day?
  • Schedule times: is the other station busy with a routine broadcast?

If these checks have been completed and there is still no response, another channel or frequency should be tried. Delays may arise because shore station operators are busy on other circuits or handling emergency communications. In all circumstances, listen before transmitting.

Download, print, laminate and display this radio equipment problem checklist on your vessel.


The following sticker is available from Marine Safety.

For a copy of the Remember to log on and log off sticker email us or call 13 11 56.

Log on Log Off - maritime radio sticker
Log on Log Off - maritime radio sticker

Image of boat radio

Page last updated: Fri Jun 26 2020 11:01:01 AM