Marine VHF Radios; Why You Need A Free MMSI Number

Life jackets? Check! Marine charts? Check! Ice? Check! Okay, maybe that last one shouldn’t have been on the list of ‘must have before leaving the dock’, but sadly, many boaters we come across would place that at #1 on their list.

Safety First

Safety while out on the water should be of paramount concern for all boaters so why not take advantage of the tools that are available right at our fingertips? The correct use of your VHF radio can help keep you in contact with surrounding boaters, stay aware of weather updates, and even receive safety updates from the Coast Guard. Did you also know that there is a built in device that can potentially save your life?

VHF radio

Fixed mount DSC/VHF marine radio

Pretty much every VHF marine radio built in the past number of years comes equipped with Digital Selective Calling (DSC) capability. Some of the features one can employ include direct calling an individual station (ie; a specific boat), locating their exact position or even transmitting your own. Best part is that this can all be done with a simple push of a button. But before one can do any of that, the radio will require an individual Maritime Marine Service Identity (MMSI). Connecting the radio to a GPS can add an even greater level of safety, but more on that further down.

Understanding MMSI

To be most effective, your radio should be unique in the sea of radio traffic that is out there today and that’s where an MMSI number comes into play. Think of it as a phone number for your radio. This number is physically entered into the radio, making it uniquely identifiable from every other one. Keep in mind that if one has more than one VHF radio aboard, each one of those should use the same MMSI number. The reasoning for this is that the number is associated with a specific vessel, not to the radio itself.

Information that is included in a new registration would include the vessel name, owner’s name & contact info along with gross tonnage/ length of the boat. In an emergency situation, this information can be used to identify a given vessel and contact the registered owner or their family. If one is involved in a perilous event such as fire, man overboard or taking on water, being able to send that information with one button would free up those on board to focus on the emergency at hand. This can be done without having to speak directly with outsiders. That is possible by activating the ‘panic button’ on every DSC equipped radio. NOTE: Never push that button outside of an emergency, as it will immediately broadcast an emergency signal to all those in radio range. There is no test function for that feature, so do not let anyone play with it!

Obtaining Your Number

Getting your own MMSI number is a free and easy procedure. In Canada, applications for  recreational boaters, with a non-licensed VHF radio, are available through the Industry Canada web site. American boaters who remain in U.S. waters can obtain their numbers through a number of outlets, including Boat US, Sea Tow and the U.S. Power Squadron.

Advanced Features

Interconnecting a Global Positioning System (GPS) interface allows one even more capabilities, as well as adding another layer of safety. Today, many manufacturers offer VHF radio models that have a built in GPS. If yours doesn’t have this feature, you can connect your own GPS unit to the radio Just check the specs on each respective piece of equipment to see which wires plumb together.

hand held VHF

Some hand held units, such as this Standard Horizon model, are MMSI capable.

With both units working together, users can send their position to other similarly equipped vessels, and even ask for a ‘position request’ from a buddy out on the water. More importantly, if one were to ever find themselves having to broadcast a mayday call, the exact position of the vessel would not only be sent to relevant authorities, but to other boats in radio range would automatically get that same position info which would pop right up on their GPS plotter! Imagine the beneficial impact upon a rescue operation; resources could be immediately dispatched to the scene, as well as rebroadcast via the Coast Guard, all without the confusion that may result in a panicky situation.

GPS chartplotter with MMSI info

MMSI position information on GPS chart plotter

Things To Remember

There are a few things to keep in mind when setting up your radio(s). Most manufacturers only allow the end user one or two attempts when entering the 9 digit MMSI code. If you mess up, the radio will have to be returned to the manufacturer to have the codes wiped clear before attempting to enter it again. Same is true if you sell your boat/radio. When selling, it would be a good idea to have your MMSI number removed from any equipment before the new owner takes possession. Remember, the number is specific to YOUR vessel and should not be passed on to new owners.Of course, you could just transfer the radio from your old boat to the new one. . .

For American boaters who plan on transiting beyond U.S. waters (Canada/Mexico/Bahamas, etc.), MMSI numbers must be registered directly with the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). As well, a Ship’s Station License may be required for navigators other than pleasure boaters.

Keep in mind that, even if connected to a GPS (which gets it’s signal via a satellite network), all communications are handled through the radio frequencies of the VHF. Some folks get confused on this point and assume that a ‘position send’ and ‘position request’ are transmitted through space. All attempted communications must happen within radio range.

Here’s a video I produced to help show a little bit more regarding MMSI;

Bottom Line Benefits

With life saving potential over and above all the gee-whiz factors, I cannot imagine why any boater would not pursue setting up their own MMSI registration. In my mind, this has got to be one of the best pieces of safety equipment one could have on their boat. Best of all, it’s completely free :-)

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