Stress and Distress

Owning a boat brings some responsibilities along with it. One of them is being able to preserve the life of your crew members, your own, and being able to help other sailors near you if they are in trouble.

The new VHF radio we installed on Kismet, a Raymarine Ray240e, is equipped with a DSC (Digital Selective Call) system. This is often associated with the RED distress button on the device, but it turns out there is much more to the whole system than just pressing and holding it if you happen to be in danger.

The handset of the Raymarine Ray240e DSC radio installed on Kismet

The handset of the Raymarine Ray240e DSC radio installed on Kismet. Below it is the old ICOM portable VHF radio.

DSC is one of the technologies at the heart of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, GMDSS in short. Boats equipped with GMDSS compliant systems are able to send a distress call, including their coordinates and the nature of the problem, in a matter of seconds. They can also be informed that there is someone else in distress nearby and can participate, under proper coordination, to a rescue operation.

In few words, GMDSS gives you a better chance to save lives, your own or someone else’s. For this reasons, all vessels part of the SOLAS (Safety Of Life at Sea) convention are equipped with GMDSS compliant systems. For leisure vessels, while not mandatory, it is highly recommended.

It turns out that owning a GMDSS compliant device, like our Raymarine radio, and being able to use it properly are two different subjects. If you have such devices on your Italian flagged boat, you are not allowed to use them unless you own a Short Range or Long Range Certificate. These are the equivalent of the Restricted Operator Certificate (ROC) and Global Operator Certificate (GOC) for non SOLAS vessels. If you are a maritime professional, you need a ROC or GOC to operate a GMDSS system on board of SOLAS vessels. If you are not a professional and just need it for your own boat (non-SOLAS), the SRC or the LRC are what you should go for.

The difference between the Short Range and the Long Range Certificate is that the latter allows you to also use Inmarsat satellite based devices and High Frequency/Medium Frequency radios (like an SSB radio). These devices are useful to have when navigating far off at sea, past the reach of a VHF coast station (typically 30 or 40 miles away).

No questions that we want to go for a Long Range Certificate! This is when things start to get a little more complex, also thanks to the fact that Italy is somehow slow to organize itself around new laws and requirements.

Fact number 1. Earning your LRC requires you to give an exam, which consists of both theory and practice. The practical session revolves around simulating various conditions and proving you can handle them through a number of GMDSS devices.

Fact number 2. Owning an Italian Ham Radio License, like I do, doesn’t provide any shortcut toward getting your GMDSS Certificate. The opposite is true though. If you have a GMDSS Certificate you can get your Italian Ham Radio License for “free”! Owning a Limited VHF Operator’s License, like we do to use the regular VHF on our boat, doesn’t help either.

Fact number 3. There is only one place in Italy where the GMDSS exams take place, which is Rome. This wouldn’t be too bad per se, but it is far away from Germany where we spend most of our time. We will have to fly there and spend at least a couple of days in our beloved capital. There are definitely worst places to get stranded in!

Fact number 4. The dates of the exams are not public. To know them you have to write to the secretary of the commission. Luckily enough (and somehow strange for an Italian public employee), he happens to be an extremely helpful and friendly person. Apparently the reason they do not publish the exam dates is that he wants to talk personally to everyone who is going to enroll and make sure they come prepared. Well done Mr. Panatta! 🙂

Fact number 5. There is no official text-book or reading material for the exam, just a list of topics that each candidate should come prepared on. Among them, is English (!) and geography. I think we are fairly well positioned on the former, not sure about the latter though… It turns out that there is an unofficially recommended web site, egmdss.com, which can be used for the preparation. It also has online simulators for some of the GMDSS devices that will be used during the exam. I took a quick look at it and the good news is that the online training is pretty well done and free, the bad news is that the access to the simulators is not free. It costs the astonishing amount of 9 EUR! Just kidding of course, this is really affordable and much easier than reading the user manuals of the devices (which I downloaded anyway) or trying to get access to them in some ways.
The content on egmdss.com is available in many languages, including Italian, and seems to cover pretty much all there is to know for the exam (beside English and geography!) Disclosure: we have no affiliation whatsoever with egmdss.com.

Speaking of online resources, I also stumbled into a GMDSS Handbook published by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority which seems to be well written and covers all topics. It can be found here. By the way, I wonder how the whole topic of getting your GMDSS Certificate works in other countries. Italy is often special in similar regards.

Tomorrow morning I am going to call Mr. Panatta (he wasn’t in today) to fix the date of the LRC exam for both Desiree and me. I understand it takes place once a month, so it will probably be at the beginning of April (hopefully not April 1st!)

Looks like we will have two months to learn everything we need about GMDSS. Honestly speaking, there is only a part of the exam that worries me. Good guess: geography!

With love,
Marco and Desiree

 

3 thoughts on “Stress and Distress

  1. That sounds a lot more complex that spending your $15 for a Ship’s Station license and $60 (?) on a Restricted Operator license so you can use your SSB!

    Presumably you can push the red Panic Button in Italy without a license?

    One thing we’ve learned and liked about DSC is when in an anchorage with friends you can use it for a for making private calls. You can ring up your friends radio directly and no one but them knows you’ve called, unlike the broad hail on the anchorage hailing frequency everyone hears this is like making a phone call. For example we found that useful in some places that had Boat Boys, so we could call each other and discuss our plans for the day (involving the boat boys) without anyone listening in, or if you need to discuss some other plans that you don’t want everyone to hear. You call your friend with a “Switch to” channel picked, when they acknowledge the call you both end up on that channel, if they miss it their radio still might alert them that you called. Of course someone could listen on those channels, but since they didn’t hear the hail they would need to be monitoring every possible channel.

    The only downside is the Alert noise on our Icom IC-M604 is way too quiet and can not be changed, I need a air raid siren with my hearing.

    • Hi BJ,
      I agree that is way to complex, we hope anyway to learn something useful while preparing for the exam. I also wonder what happens if you are in need and send a Distress call without having the licence. They will probably save you and fine you at the same time.
      You are right, selective calls can be handy, but I will be able to tell you once we have our licenses and can try them out legally. 😉
      Fair winds!
      Marco and Desiree

  2. A quick update: the exam has been set for April 8 and we won’t have too much time to prepare until then. Wish us good luck! 🙂

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