Rules Which Require Listening to your VHF Marine Radio

Why are there rules for listening to marine radios?

A charter boat whose radio was not tuned to the proper channel missed a severe storm warning. By the time the captain learned of the storm, it was too late to return to shore. The ship sank and a couple of persons died. A yacht in trouble off the west coast of Mexico and far from help saw a passenger ship. What should have been a quick rescue could have turned to disaster when the passenger ship (improperly) had its radio off. The yacht was able to attract the ship's attention, however, and was rescued. Misunderstanding of passing intentions by approaching vessels and near collisions have repeatedly been averted by working radios tuned to the proper channel.

The International Telecommunications Union established three VHF marine radio channels recognized worldwide for safety purposes:

Regulations on radio watchkeeping exist for all boats and ships carrying marine radios, commercial, recreational, government and military, U.S. and foreign. Three U.S. government agencies, the Federal Communications Commission, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the U.S. Coast Guard; and two international organizations, the International Telecommunications Union and the International Maritime Organization; have each established marine radio watchkeeping regulations. Even though these rules were established for safety purposes, some confusion has existed over what these rules are, to whom they apply, and from whom they were issued.

Who regulates whom?

Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC regulates all use of radio onboard any recreational, commercial, state and local government, and foreign vessel in U.S. ports and waters. These regulations are contained in Title 47, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 80.

National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). NTIA regulates all use of radio onboard any federal government vessel, including military vessel, in U.S. ports and waters. NTIA rules do not apply outside the federal government. NTIA rules, applied in 47 CFR 300, are contained in the Manual of Regulations and Procedures for Federal Radio Frequency Management (NTIA Manual).

U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). USCG regulates carriage of radio on commercial fishing vessels, foreign vessels in U.S. waters, survival craft, and vessels subject to the Bridge-to-bridge Act (generally all vessels over 20m length). USCG radio watchkeeping rules only apply to vessels participating in vessel traffic service (VTS) areas. USCG rules affecting radio are contained in Titles 33 (for VTS and Bridge-to-bridge Act regulations) and 46 (for vessel carriage requirements), Code of Federal Regulations.

International Telecommunications Union (ITU). ITU regulates all use of radio by any person or vessel outside U.S. waters. ITU rules affecting radio, which have treaty status in the U.S., are published in the ITU Radio Regulations.

International Maritime Organization (IMO). IMO regulates the operation of most vessels outside U.S. waters, except warships. Most IMO radio regulations affect passenger ships and other types of ships of weight 300 tons and over. IMO rules affecting radio, which have treaty status in the U.S., are included in the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention.

United States Radio Watchkeeping Regulations

U.S. recreational vessels not required to carry radios

Vessels not required to carry a marine radio (e.g. recreational vessels less than 20m length), but which voluntarily carry a radio, must maintain a watch on channel 16 (156.800 MHz) whenever the radio is operating and not being used to communicate. Such vessels may alternatively maintain a watch on VHF channel 9 (156.450 MHz), the boater calling channel. Note however that urgent marine information broadcasts, such as storm warnings, are announced on channel 9 only in First CG District waters (northern New Jersey, New York and New England).

Source: FCC 47 CFR 80.310

U.S. vessels required to carry a marine radio

U.S. vessels required to carry a VHF marine radio, such as commercial fishing vessels, must maintain a watch on channel 16 (156.800 MHZ) while underway whenever the radio is not being used for exchanging communications.

Source: FCC 47 CFR 80.148

U.S. government and military vessels

All U.S. government and military vessels and shore stations having a VHF marine radio shall maintain a watch for reception of 156.8 MHz (channel 16) while underway or during their hours of service, whenever practicable. Government ships transiting portions of the St. Lawrence Seaway or Coast Guard operated VTS may terminate the listening watch on channel 16 when directed by the Seaway or VTS to call and work on a designated ship movement frequency.


Vessels 20m in length and greater

Every power-driven vessel of 20m length or greater, every vessel of 100 tons and upward carrying one or more passengers for hire, every towing vessel of 26 ft length or greater, and every dredge and floating plant near a channel or fairway, must maintain a watch on both VHF channels 13 (156.650 MHz) and 16 (156.800 MHz) while the vessel is underway. Persons meeting this requirement must be capable of speaking the English language. Sequential monitoring techniques (scanners) alone cannot be used to meet this requirement; two radios, or one radio with two receivers, are required. Vessels operating on the lower Mississippi River must keep a listening watch on VHF channel 67 (156.375 MHz) in place of channel 13.

These rules apply to all foreign vessels, recreational vessels, federal government and military vessels as well as commercial vessels, operating within U.S. territorial waters. These rules also apply to vessels on the Great Lakes and their connecting and tributary waters.

All ships, including foreign ships, are required to carry VHF radios capable of tuning to the following U.S. national channels:

Channel        Frequency           Description

  05A          156.250 MHz         VTS (required only in Puget 
  22A          157.100 MHz         US-wide.  CG liaison and 
                                   maritime safety broadcasts.

Ships participating in a vessel traffic service area must also keep watch on the VTS radio channel designated for that area. Such ships may discontinue their watch on VHF channel 16 while in the VTS area. Ships operating only with VHF handheld bridge-to-bridge radio equipment are not required to keep watch on channel 16. Ships with digital selective calling-equipped VHF radios keeping watch on channel 70 in a GMDSS Sea Area A1 also may discontinue their watch on channel 16.

FCC: 47 CFR 80.148, 80.308-309
USCG: 33 CFR 26
NTIA: NTIA Manual Chapter

International Radio Watchkeeping Regulations

Ships subject to the Safety of Life at Sea Convention

Ships 300 tons and over and passenger ships on international voyages must maintain, where practicable, a continuous listening watch on VHF channel 16 until 1 February 2005. This watch shall be kept at the position from which the ship is normally navigated. After 1 February 1999 these ships will be required to carry digital selective calling-capable VHF radios and maintain a continuous watch on channel 70. Military warships, most fishing vessels and sailing ships are exempt from this requirement.


All ships

All ships should, where practicable, maintain watch on channel 16 when within the service area of a VHF maritime coast station. Ships fitted only with VHF marine radios should also maintain watch on channel 16 while at sea. Ships with digital selective calling-equipped VHF marine radios should keep watch on channel 70.

ITU: RR 38-16, RR N38

VHF Marine Radio Channels and Frequencies


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Last Revised: 6 November 1998

Commandant (G-SCT-2)
U.S. Coast Guard
Washington DC 20593