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New Requirement for Handheld DSC/GPS VHF Radio

The Chicago Yacht Club Mackinac Committee wants to draw your attention to a significant change implemented with the 2018 Chicago Mackinac Safety Regulations.  Effective this year, each boat is required by CMSR 3.8.2 to "…have a watertight handheld VHF radio or handheld VHF radio with waterproof cover. The radio shall have DSC/GPS capability with an MMSI number properly registered to the vessel."  This was previously a "recommendation".  We recommend you act now to both procure a compliant radio (if you have not already done so) and obtain an appropriate Marine Mobile Service Identify (MMSI) number.


Why did we make the Handheld DSC/GPS VHF a requirement?  This aligns with US Sailing's Safety Equipment Requirements for Coastal racing. Beginning in 2014, all boats competing in the CYC Race to Mackinac have been required to be equipped with a fixed 25-watt VHF radio with Digital Selective Calling (DSC) and GPS capabilities enabled and MMSI number properly registered to and programmed into the radio.  In the past few years, radio manufacturers have brought to market multiple handheld DSC/GPS enable VHF radios.  At the same time, the US Coast Guard has fully implemented its "Rescue 21" system on Lake Michigan, providing greatly expanded VHF reception and capability of receiving and responding to DSC emergency calls.  Rescue 21, combined with a DSC/GPS VHF and properly registered and programmed MMSI, takes the ‘search’ out of search and rescue by enabling the USCG to know that you are in distress and where you are, all at the push of a button.

The image to the right shows the USCG Rescue 21 coverage of Lake Michigan for reception of a low power (1 watt) transmission from a VHF with an antenna only 6 feet above the water.  Given the proven efficacy of a DSC/GPS VHF to provide vital location and nature of emergency, the ability of the USCG to receive and process those signals, and the density of nearby racing boats that could receive, process, and respond to a DSC emergency transmission, it was time to make the Handheld DSC/GPS VHF mandatory.

Carrying a Handheld DSC/GPS VHF is not the only requirement.  It must be programmed with an MMSI, and that MMSI must be recorded on your Entry Profile.  That is where you have a choice to make:  Do I program the handheld with the same MMSI as my fixed DSC/GPS VHF, or do I obtain a different MMSI for the handheld?

A web search (MMSI for handheld DSC VHF use same as fixed DSC VHF?) reveals conflicting answers that run the gamut:  

·        Both fixed and handheld radios MUST use the same MMSI

·        Both fixed and handheld radios MAY use the same MMSI

·        Fixed and handheld radios MAY use separate MMSIs

·        Fixed and handheld radios SHOULD use separate MMSIs

The most concise and up to date answer seems to be from the BoatUS MMSI FAQs page (  "If you plan to use the handheld on other boats, you might want a separate MMSI number so that you can update the registration according to which boat it is currently on. If you plan to use it only on one boat, you can use the same MMSI number as the fixed radio."

One reason it is important to research the MMSI question now is that VHF radios sold in the US generally allow the MMSI to be programmed ONCE without returning it to the manufacturer.  If you use the same MMSI on both radios then sell your boat or decide to go for an extended sail on someone else’s boat, you cannot easily change the MMSI to match the new boat.  If you have used a different MMSI for the handheld (and obtained if from other than the FCC), you can go online to update the boat information.  If you have an emergency and only time to get off a 1 second DSC transmission, you don’t want the Coast Guard searching for you on your 70-footer "Acme" when in reality you are on your friend’s 22- footer "Xylophone".

Whatever you decide, you should act on it now.  If you are going to use the same MMSI in both radios, enter the MMSI in the space on your Entry Profile now.  If you are going to use separate MMSIs, apply for it now.  You need not wait for your new handheld before you apply; you can apply for the MMSI now and later program it into the radio when you purchase it.

If you are one of our Canadian (and probably most other international) competitors and have waded through this whole discussion, we apologize.  It has no relevance to you.  Canada adheres to the newer international rules that say a handheld is not tied to a specific boat and is eligible for a Marine Identity (MI) number instead of an MMSI.  The MI (as well as the MMSI for your fixed VHF) is available for free through Industry Canada (


Helpful Links:

Practical Sailor:​helds_11612-1.html

Online VHF radio course, including VHF simulator:

USCG NavCenter – DSC Distress Procedures

USCG VHF Coverage – Sector Lake Michigan – 1 watt transmitter 6 feet above water:

Free MMSI sources:

Industry Canada:



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