GMDSS: Mass Confusion?


Recently we received the following e-mail from reader Gerard Lacroix, asking questions about radio communications that must be on the minds of others.

Your last article on Digital Selective Calling was in your August 15, 1997 issue. Your conclusion was both prophetic and ominous: …1999 through 2003 will be a time of much confusion on DSC…if you find yourself offshore in the path of a large vessel after February 1, 1999, the only sure way of communicating with her will be with DSC.

First, while fixed DSC-capable VHF radios exist, what happens if you sink, youre in your life raft and you are about to be run over by a big ship? As far as I know, there are no DSC-capable portable VHF radios on the market. Please let me know if you know of any.

Second, isn’t it true that you are or soon will be unable to communicate with big ships via SSB unless your SSB is GMDSS capable? The sole GMDSS-capable set I know of is made by SGC. According to Icom, no Icom GMDSS-capable set is available in the US, and they don’t know when such sets will be available, if ever. Why then even consider an Icom SSB or any other non-GMDSS set if youre going offshore? I wouldnt consider it prudent to give up ship-to-ship communication all together.

I find the whole GMDSS/DSC business quite confusing and would appreciate any light you can shed.

The status of GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety System) and DSC (Digital Selective Calling) continues to lag far behind schedule and is fraught with difficulties-particularly false alarms of DSC radio systems. Currently, less than 1% of calls are actual distress situations.

A controlled test done by the FCC of five HF/MF and eight VHF DSC radios on April 29, 1999 revealed that a number of technical and procedural problems still exist. Therefore, we would be reluctant to buy a DSC radio with high hopes of full functionality in the near future. In fact, a Catch 22 situation exists with the assignment of a mandatory maritime mobile service identity or MMSI (discrete DSC phone number) to voluntary purchasers of DSC-equipped radios. Because the only way to get the number is by purchasing an FCC station license, you are forced to buy a license you don’t need (a license is not required for a recreational vessel). They are trying to solve this, but don’t hold your breath. Besides, the Coast Guard will not be capable of receiving VHF DSC distress calls for years, although selected other countries are more in compliance.

What Is GMDSS?
GMDSS is a radio communications safety system for ships mandated by international treaty obligations in 1988. The International Maritime Organization (IMO), an organization of the United Nations, amended the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) to implement GMDSS worldwide at what was thought to be an achievable schedule.

DSC is one element of GMDSS and is an automated notification system on VHF, HF, and MF frequencies to include automatic position information and identification of the calling vessel. GMDSS includes several modalities besides DSC, including COSPAS-SARSAT satellites, NAVTEX receivers, Inmarsat, SARTs and 406 MHz EPIRBs. Participation and equipment by recreational vessels in the US is not required, nor is GMDSS training; however, it is highly recommended. Ultimately, this will be an excellent system.

The US is still far behind schedule in implementing GMDSS, with expected completion dates years away. We reviewed the last 12 months worth of minutes of the National GMDSS Implementation Task Force Meetings and were dismayed at the lack of progress. Unfortunately, this is to be expected when there are so many cooks- both national and international-stirring the pot, not to mention technical specifications, which have been a moving target. The FCC has granted some temporary waivers to some mandatory GMDSS participants due to these problems.

On February 1, 1999, under GMDSS rules, mandatory watch keeping on 2182 kHz by large vessels ceased. This date was not moved because an incompatibility has already existed for years with current radio technology between small vessels and mandatory GMDSS vessels. SOLAS-regulated ships have used auto alarm receivers for watch keeping on 2182 kHz and most small vessels do not have auto alarm generators and could not have communicated with them anyway. We guess the thinking is that they are not making a bad situation any worse! However, because of VHF DSC technology and procedural problems, VHF watch keeping on channel 16 will continue until February 1, 2005, so an existing handheld will work to communicate at VHF ranges.

What to Do?
We think more time is needed before investing in new equipment makes sense. (Interestingly, all radios submitted to the FCC for certification after June 17, 1999 must meet DSC requirements for type acceptance, excluding handhelds). Considering the state of affairs of DSC, we would be surprised to see this date and current technical specifications remain firm. Existing radios may continue to be used. Be sure your VHF handheld is certified waterproof to CFR 46 or better, has an alkaline battery option and that there are plenty of spares in a waterproof container.

Also, consider buying one of the new GMDSS-approved 406 MHz EPIRBs that have a built-in GPS receiver which can immediately send position information to an orbiting satellite. (We hope to test the two available models from ACR and Northern Airborne shortly.) For your own safety, be sure the EPIRB is properly registered with the government.

For e-mail communications using HF radio, service providers such as SailMail, PinOak, and Globe Wireless should be checked out. Other options include using the more expensive Inmarsat C satellite terminals or opt for the high-roller option of a new Iridium satellite phone.

You can visit and more information and links to many sites, including other nations status of GMDSS.

Popular Boat Names
In case you missed it, each year BOAT/U.S. announces the 10 most popular boat names among its members.

Last year, Serenity, the most popular name in 1992, 1993 and 1996, returned to the top again, followed by Osprey, Obsession, Wind Dancer, Therapy, Destiny, Fantasea, Escape, Odyssey and Tide Runner.

We have forgotten which name was most popular in ’97. Was it Wet Dream, Y Knot?, R-Nu-House or Sea Cents?

How about Non-Cents?

Darrell Nicholson
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him at