If your boat is equipped with a VHF-DSC (Digital Selective Calling) marine radio or you’re planning to get one for your boat, it’s never been easier in Canada to obtain an MMSI, or Maritime Mobile Service Identity, number. The DSC features of your radio—particularly distress calls—will not be functional until you have assigned an MMSI number to your radio.
Why Do I Need an MMSI Number?
The MMSI number uniquely identifies your vessel on the water. You can think of it as a telephone number for your radio. If your radio is also equipped with an AIS (Automatic Identification System) receiver, you can also see the positions and status of AIS vessels in your vicinity. Ideally, you have your radio connected to a GPS unit on your boat’s network. If your boat’s components use the newer NMEA 2000 protocol, your radio might even find the GPS of your chartplotter without any configuration hassle on your end.
The single most important reason for having a VHF-DSC radio with an MMSI is the capability to automatically send a distress call that includes the details of your boat and its position to nearby vessels and the Coast Guard. Perhaps more importantly, if you as the captain are incapacitated and need your shipmate(s) to handle a distress call, you can easily teach them how to do it. All DSC enabled radios have a red flap over the distress button, the red-covered button on the right of the pictured Lowrance Link 8 radio.
Press and hold the distress button for 5 seconds, and an alarm noise and a distress call with all the pertinent details of your vessel is sent. Once the distress call is received, you or your shipmates can answer any follow-up questions that the responding party may have on channel 16. Some radios, including my Lowrance Link 8, will allow a two-stage distress call: Press and release the button to select the nature of your distress (e.g. fire, flooding, collision, and so on), and then press and hold the distress button for 3 seconds to transmit the call.
DSC radios will continue to send the distress call every four minutes until a response is received.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to go through the entire form, but here are a few guidelines:
You will need a valid e-mail address to use on the form. Your MMSI number will be issued over email.
If you’re a recreational pleasure craft, your MMSI type is most likely “unlicensed”.
Your “General Classification” should be “Pleasure Craft PL” and not “Fishing Vessel FV”.
Your “Individual Classification” is more flexible, but should accurately describe your boat. Remember, these details are used to identify and find your boat on the water should you be in an emergency situation.
While you are legally required to have a Radio Operator’s Certificate (ROC-M) to operate a VHF marine radio in Canada, you are not required to enter proof of a certificate when you register for a MMSI number. You as an operator are not getting an MMSI—the MMSI belongs to the radio on your boat to identify its transmissions.
You should apply for a MMSI number for each VHF DSC radio on your boat, including backup handheld radios.
If you purchased a boat with an existing MMSI number programmed into the ship’s radio, you can use the same online form to update the owner information.
After you’ve submitted the online form, you should receive an email response with your new MMSI number from Industry Canada within two to three days. Be sure to check your spam or junk folder for the email from Industry Canada.
How Do I Update My Radio?
You will need to refer to your radio’s manual on specific steps to enter your new MMSI number. On the Lowrance Link 8, press and hold the CALL/MENU button for 1 second to enter DSC SETUP. Then, select USER MMSI and proceed to input your number.
Most DSC radios have a DSC Test option that allows you to send a DSC call to another vessel. You can use a buddy’s MMSI number to send the test call to their radio, and then your buddy can acknowledge the test call. You can likely setup your radio to auto reply to DSC test calls so that no intervention is required on your end to respond.
You’ve now just made your boat much more prepared in the event of an emergency. The world of DSC transmissions is more than just automating distress calls, though. Most radios support a “track your buddy” feature that allow you to see your buddies while you’re out on the water. You can enter their MMSI number into your radio’s contact list and choose to track their location. If you don’t know your buddy’s MMSI number, you can use the search form I mentioned earlier to locate their number by vessel name. Note that just because you have a boat’s MMSI number doesn’t mean you can automatically track it. The buddy has to either manually accept the tracking (or polling request) or set their radio’s options to automatically respond to tracking requests. This type of vessel tracking should not be confused with AIS transponders, which broadcast a ship’s details to any vessel within range. The “track your buddy” feature can be especially useful if you’re trying to locate your buddy at a busy fishing area, or when you’re fishing in coastal areas with several islands between fishing spots that make visual contact difficult or impossible.
And, as I already mentioned, take a moment to walk through the use of the DSC distress button with any shipmates on your next outing. It only takes a minute—easily done while idling away from the boat launch or marina—and can enable anyone on the boat to assist in an emergency situation.