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Sea Tow launches new VHF service

Sea Smart is a subscription-based communications service that turns your DSC radio into a vital link to shore

Newer 25-watt marine VHF radios must now include that big, spring-loaded, red plastic cover marked“DISTRESS.” And you know that in an emergency when you turn your radio on, lift the red-plastic cover up, and press and hold the distress button, something is supposed to happen.

Take a look at the instructions from one radio manufacturer’s manual: “Lift the clear-plastic protective tab over DISTRESS. Hold down the distress button for five seconds, a condition screen appears listing several distress condition choices, choose the appropriate distress condition, and press the button again to send out your distress call.”

The instructions can be somewhat confusing as to whether you press the button once, whether you hold it for five seconds continuously, or whether you need to hold and then release and then hold it again to transmit the distress call. And here is some news you might not know: Unless you have preprogrammed your MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) number into your VHF, pressing and holding the distress button won’t send a signal at all.

Few 25-watt DSC-capable marine radios have been preprogrammed by the vessel owner or captain to enable this distress feature. The confusion stems in part from obtaining the MMSI number in the first place. If you’re cruising locally and not carrying passengers for hire, you may obtain your unique nine-digit number through the private sector at or www.boatus .com. (Click on “Boating Safety” in both instances and follow the MMSI links.) If your vessel requires ship station radiotelephone registration under Federal Communications Commission law, the FCC should issue your MMSI number on the same operating authority as your ship station call sign. (Most pleasure-boat MMSI numbers begin with 366 or 367.)

GPS tie-in

OK, you have your MMSI number, and you have faithfully entered it in your new 25-watt marine VHF. What next?

“The NMEA GPS output needs to be connected to the NMEA GPS input on a marine VHF transceiver for automated position report sending,” says Julian Frost, a West Coast marine electronics dealer. Frost says boaters on the West Coast are a bit more diligent in obtaining and entering their MMSI numbers, with three out of 10 properly programmed. However, out of those three, only one has the recommended GPS tie-in.

The GPS tie-in is the additional step required for your DSC radio to transmit position information along with your digital call on VHF channel 70. While a vessel with an entered MMSI number could send a distress call on VHF channel 70 successfully without position information, latitude and longitude obviously would assist rescue agencies immensely.

A key element of the DSC red-button distress call is the capability of every turned-on DSC radio in the vicinity to receive that call, some sending out an acknowledgment and all switching to VHF channel 16 to hear further voice traffic from the vessel in distress or instructions from the Coast Guard on what action to take when their own radios beep loudly.

And that’s the idea behind a distress call using digital selective calling: Everyone with a turned-on DSC radio in the area knows a nearby boater needs help.

Sea Smart

Yet some boaters still elect to dial 911 on their cellular phones in an emergency. “Valuable minutes are lost if a boater calls up using cell phone,” says Frost. “Most cellular phones do not incorporate the new E-911 locator technology. And even if they did show up on the local highway patrol dispatch screen, there are still many valuable minutes lost for this information ultimately to be routed to locate Coast Guard units.” Frost also points out that no one else in the vicinity knows that a mariner is calling out in distress.

“For years, the marine industry has recognized a need for a more reliable, more powerful alternative to the use of cell phones as the primary means of communicating with fellow boaters and, more importantly, those on shore,” says Capt. Keith Cummings, president of Southold, N.Y.-based Sea Tow.

To help fill that need, Sea Tow is offering a new 25-watt radio consumer service called Sea Smart. The new communications service was announced at the Miami International Boat Show in February. If you have a new 25-watt DSC marine VHF radio on board, or you’re thinking of purchasing one to replace your old, tired crystal VHF, Sea Smart seems to be a valuable service to consider. Here’s why:

• Sea Tow scores that elusive nine-digit MMSI number.

• Sea Tow can run a radio check to make sure the number is properly entered into your radio.

• You will be given a simplified wiring diagram to connect your existing GPS NMEA output to your 25-watt DSC-capable radio, and instructions for confirming that your GPS is indeed “talking” to your radio.

Now for the good part: Sea Smart subscribers will have access to marine VHF, duplex, public-correspondence channels 27 and 28, broadcasting and receiving from high-power antennas that extend range well beyond typical cell phone coverage.

“And in choppy seas, mariners needing to call home need only to depress the mic button for five seconds and speak to a Sea Smart customer service rep who will patch their call through,” says Cummings. He points out how a cell phone out on the water could easily become water damaged, and how balancing yourself while punching in each digit of the telephone number could be difficult in heavy seas.

“The Sea Smart operations center personnel are also available 24-hours a day for local boating information, direct-to-shore local and long distance phone calls, and patch-throughs to the Coast Guard or a local Sea Tow operator, as appropriate,” says Cummings.

And there’s more. Your DSC VHF likely has a feature called “position polling,” and as a Sea Smart subscriber, trained radio dispatch personnel can poll your turned-on radio and return a position “echo” of your GPS-derived latitude and longitude, Cummings says. Your position shows up in real time on the operators’ screens at the dispatch center, so if you should call in and say you’re lost, they can quickly identify your location, provide recommendations, dispatch assistance and track your boat’s movements.

Automatic vessel locator

This same information also is available on the Sea Smart VHF Web-based vessel location system, allowing Mom and Dad to keep track of the kids when they’re out fishing for the day.

“Intracoastal cruisers can call Sea Smart for information about the nearest fuel dock or restaurant, and offshore fishermen don’t have to wait to get near home to let their loved ones know they’re all right,” says Cummings. “With Sea Smart’s automatic vessel locator, if the VHF is tied to the boat’s GPS, we can use DSC polling to identify a subscriber’s exact location, which will pop up on our operator’s screen, and will also be accessible via the subscriber’s home computer.”

Feel like Big Brother is watching a little too closely? A menu item on your marine 25-watt VHF lets you deny position polling. In an emergency, however, your position will always be transmitted in the distress message.

Yacht race and fishing tournament organizers could certainly benefit from knowing where every participant is with Sea Smart position polling. As long as participants are within range of the powerful coastal antenna chain, safety will be added to any regatta or tournament for those members with 25-watt DSC marine VHF radios.

The first region in which Sea Tow is going live with Sea Smart is the west coast of Florida, from Cedar Key to the Everglades, because cell phone coverage on most waters in that area is relatively poor. “We also chose the west coast of Florida first because of the number of hurricanes and tropical storms that have hit that area, wiping out traditional cell phone service,” adds Cummings. “We ran some test towers by generator in Katrina-affected areas with knocked-out communications last year and found the Sea Smart VHF system to be very useful.”

Sea Tow plans to deploy additional radio towers along the waters of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut by this summer, then the east coast of Florida this fall. Ultimately, Sea Smart will make its way out to the West Coast, too, by next summer. With the Coast Guard’s Rescue 21 system still in very early and local rollout, it is a positive sign to see the private sector concerned with boating safety and adding a new dimension to the common, not very well understood, 25-watt marine VHF transceiver.

If your marine VHF radio has a red plastic cover marked “DISTRESS,” ask yourself these questions:

1. Did you get your nine-digit MMSI number?

2. Is your MMSI number properly entered into your VHF DSC circuit?

3. Is your companion GPS two-wired into your VHF, and can you verify that the GPS is communicating with your radio?

4. Do you know and understand exactly the steps to send a DSC distress call on your particular VHF radio?

5. Are you aware that your DSC radio beeping loudly and automatically switching to channel 16 may be receiving an active distress or priority call?

6. Do you know how to position poll other mariners with similar marine VHF equipment tied into GPS?

It’s a tall order to understand the complexities of the new breed of marine VHF DSC radios, and for about 40 cents a day for a Sea Smart subscription (Sea Tow members) you can cruise with the peace of mind that trained emergency radio operators can quickly help, both electronically and on the water, should you get into a jam.

Sea Tow members pay $11.95 a month for a Sea Smart subscription ($16.95 for non-members), with a 12-month contract. For more information about Sea Smart, call Sea Tow at (631) 765-3660 or visit