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Author Topic:   Mandatory Equipment: Comm Radio--NO; Beacon Radio--Yes
jimh posted 10-24-2011 10:38 PM ET (US)   Profile for jimh   Send Email to jimh  
Of importance to boaters is the Federal Boating Safety Act of 1971 (FBSA of 1971 or "the Act"), in which Congress set out a number of regulations affecting recreational boaters. The Act is codified in U.S. Code as Title 46-Shipping-Chapter 43-Recreational Vessels, and (as far as I can find) is contained in Section 4301 through Section 4311.

Here is a link to a simple text version of the Act:

I think the pertinent section is this:

The Secretary may prescribe regulations...requiring the installation, carrying, or use of associated equipment (including fuel systems, ventilation systems, electrical systems, sound-producing devices, firefighting equipment, lifesaving devices, signaling devices, ground tackle, life- and grab-rails, and navigational equipment) on recreational vessels....

Recently my attention was directed to this article

Should Rescue Beacons be Mandatory?
By Jim Flannery should-rescue-beacons-be-mandatory/?amp&

In the above article, the author says:

The Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971 gave the Coast Guard authority to require pleasure boats to carry whatever “associated equipment” it deems necessary for safety — life jackets, fire extinguishers, visual distress signals, navigation lights — but the act excluded “radio equipment.”

Having read the Act itself, I don't see where "radio equipment" is even mentioned. This is something of a corollary question to the issue raised in Jim Flanery's article, which is more recent legislation, which is referred to as the 2011 Coast Guard Authorizaton Bill H.R. 3619, and in particular Section 618 of that legislation.

Section 618 is the emergency beacon provision, and it "authorizes the Coast Guard to require the beacons on pleasure boats when they venture three nautical miles or more from the U.S. coastline or from the shores of the Great Lakes," again, according to Flanery's article. (Maybe someone can look up HR 3619 for us.)

The important point to note here is that the bill only authorizes the USCG to require emergency beacons on pleasure boats, it does not mandate that the USCG must require them. In other words, there is now in place legislative authority that the USCG could make it mandatory for pleasure boats to equip themselves with emergency beacons if the USCG decides it wants that to happen.

A further conundrum for me is how could an expensive and sophisticated device like an emergency beacon become mandatory when an inexpensive and relatively simple device like a VHF Marine Band radio cannot be required. Aren't they both radios? If one act of Congress prohibits radios from being made mandatory, how can another act of Congress make it mandatory to have a radio (albeit a different type of radio)?

Also, it is noted that in certain states, particularly Hawaii, the state government has already made it mandatory for some pleasure boats to be equipped with emergency beacons.

I see at least three areas for discussion on this topic:

--where was or is "radio equipment" excluded from the purview the Secreatary to become mandatory in the FBSA of 1971;

--how is an EPIRB not considered "radio equipment";

--what is your opinion on being forced to equip your pleasure boat with an emergency beacon?

ASIDE: We have had a bit of discussion on this in a series of emails among four or five of us, and I hope everyone will join here and give their opinions and thoughts over again.

jimh posted 10-24-2011 11:02 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
Here is the text of HR 3619, as best as I can tell:

[Deleted this text as I found it was using an out of date copy of the legislation. Please see revised version below.--jimh]

jimh posted 10-24-2011 11:08 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
Here is a good link for an overview of regulations affecting boaters:

jimh posted 10-24-2011 11:15 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
Re HR3619. Here if the final text:

Here is Section 618:



Section 2101(1)(B) of title 46, United States Code, is amended by inserting ‘with the exception of emergency locator beacons for recreational vessels operating beyond 3 nautical miles from the baselines from which the territorial sea of the United States is measured or beyond 3 nautical miles from the coastline of the Great Lake (sic),’ before ‘does’.

This makes the newly-modified section read as follows:

Sec. 2101. General definitions
In this subtitle—

(1) "associated equipment"—

(A) means—

(i) a system, accessory, component, or appurtenance of a recreational vessel; or

(ii) a marine safety article intended for use on board a recreational vessel; but

(B)with the exception of emergency locator beacons for recreational vessels operating beyond 3 nautical miles from the baselines from which the territorial sea of the United States is measured or beyond 3 nautical miles from the coastline of the Great Lake (sic), does not include radio equipment.

jimh posted 10-24-2011 11:21 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
Well, I guess I answered two of my own questions. I found the exemption for radio equipment, and now Congress has explicitly defined EPIRB's to be not considered radio equipment under the notion of what is exempted. Congress makes the law, so that is now the law.

This means we are now at the point where the Secretary of (the Department that runs the USCG) can deem an EPIRB mandatory for a recreational boat, within the limits mentioned for distance offshore.

Hoosier posted 10-25-2011 12:15 AM ET (US)     Profile for Hoosier  Send Email to Hoosier     
Here's one of my edited comments from the off line discussion.

What they should do is mandate a DSC VHF radio for near shore (less than 25 miles), or a non-subscription PLB or EPIRB for 25+ miles offshore. I think the 25+ mile rule would exempt us from almost anywhere in the Great Lakes and US coastal waters. I'll put my Philadelphia Lawyer shirt on and ask, what about US-Canada boundary, or Caribbean waters, where we may be less than 3 miles off US shore but actually be in international waters. Hell, how could this apply in the Canadian waters of the Great Lakes anyway, the USCG doesn't have any jurisdiction there. The same question applies to around the US Virgin Islands.

David Pendleton posted 10-25-2011 12:26 AM ET (US)     Profile for David Pendleton  Send Email to David Pendleton     
What they should do is mandate...

What they should do it mandate that you wear a tracking device on your ankle to make any rescue/arrest easier...

Hoosier posted 10-25-2011 12:33 AM ET (US)     Profile for Hoosier  Send Email to Hoosier     
OK, I should have said "If they do anything, they should recommend that recreational boaters have a..."
jimh posted 10-25-2011 08:36 AM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
According to the Jim Flannery article (see link above), the re-write of the legislation to provide for the potential of mandatory emergency beacons was done with the assistance of Richard Hiscock, a gentleman who has had previous experience in drafting legislation and advising Congressmen. Mr. Hiscock is described as "a marine and fishing vessel safety advocate, historian, and legislative [staffer]." He has his own website, .

His motivation appears to be for improved safety for mariners, so I don't know if the government-as-big-brother theory is applicable to this legislation.

This reasoning behind this legislation is a bit hard for me to understand. Apparently since 1971 until now, and still going forward, the USCG did not and does not have authority to force a recreational vessel to equip itself with a simple VHF Marine Band radio. In 2011 to install a VHF Marine Band radio is not particularly expensive or an onerous burden on a recreational boater. The cost of a radio, an antenna, and a mount should be under $200. And the radio is an eminently useful piece of equipment, providing utility for the boater all the time, not just in emergencies or when three miles offshore.

With this new legislation, the USCG is now authorized to require recreational boaters to equip their pleasure boats with an emergency beacon. An emergency beacon is likely to be more expensive, and is only useful in an emergency. I have not made a careful survey, but I expect the cost will be more than $200, that is, more than a VHF Marine Band radio installation. Also, these beacons are usually battery-powered, and to be ready for deployment will require annual replacement or inspection of the battery. It seems like a lot of expense and burden on the notion that you might get more than three miles from the shoreline at some point in your boating future.

Hoosier posted 10-25-2011 09:32 AM ET (US)     Profile for Hoosier  Send Email to Hoosier     
I've been looking around at what's out there in the PLB category. EPIRBs are at least 2X -5X the cost of a good PLB.

This looks like a good option. Apparently once turned ON it runs till the batteries die. After 5 years you have to send it in to get the batteries changed. Consider it an electronic flare that has an expiration date. id=1190343

This is a lower cost (maybe not once you add the $99 yearly subscription) that's on sale at West Marine. ProductDisplay?catalogId=10001&storeId=11151&partNumber=11068483& langId=-1&cid=E111025

6992WHALER posted 10-25-2011 09:53 AM ET (US)     Profile for 6992WHALER  Send Email to 6992WHALER     
Copy of most of my email.

"I certainly can see the USCG's side of this. More lives saved, less money spent, safer for their personnel.
Only $200 per boat owner. How many boat owners are willing to spend $200+ on a Marine stereo. Might just be an education and change of attitude thing.

Look how many people did not have GPS 15 years ago or VHF radios 30 years ago. Maybe as price comes down EPIRBs will get popular just like GPSs and VHF did.

I don't have one, but I do have DSC radios on both boats, one is connected to my GPS the second will be before next season. For the Great lakes is that enough?

If I was making the run to Bimini or the Dry Tortugas, I am pretty sure I would have a $200 EPIRB on board."

Jim I think the 1971 act would have had a hard time making VHF radios a mandatory piece of equipment. At that time they were expensive and most recreational boats did not have them.

I was also thinking about the DSC radio vs the EPRIRB. If the boat capsizes or has an electrical failure your fixed mount DSC radio will do nothing for you, but an EPIRB even if in the water will bring the Calvary.

K Albus posted 10-25-2011 10:25 AM ET (US)     Profile for K Albus  Send Email to K Albus     
The growing popularity of satellite messaging services, like SPOT, may complicate this issue. In fact, there is speculation in the Search and Rescue community that satellite messaging services may lead to the extinction of PLBs and EPIRBs, at least for the recreational market. See: . Of course, a Coast Guard mandate to carry and EPIRB or PLB would ensure a continuing market for such devices.
jimh posted 10-27-2011 02:48 AM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
The technology is already in place--a multi-million-dollar system--to provide the USCG with a very effective emergency locating system: RESCUE21 radio watch standing and boaters with digital selective calling radios.

Based on the coverage charts for RESCUE21, most of the coastline of the United States is already covered out to a distance of at least 20-miles, and in the very near future the USA coastline of the Great Lakes will also be covered to about that same distance. (The RESCUE21 installation in the Great Lakes is still in progress.) It would make a lot more sense to suggest that a line of demarcation in terms of distance away from the coastline ought to be coordinated with the coverage of RESCUE21. If a boater planned to operate his boat beyond the RESCUE21 system coverage, then an emergency locating beacon that used satellite technology would be a reasonable requirement.

It has already been mentioned by the government that they have in place some satellite receivers for monitoring for vessel AIS transmissions, and that the government is able to track inbound vessels with AIS transponders at a range of over 200-miles off the coastline of the USA. Since those assets are already in place, why not let them also monitor for DSC distress calls, too? This would extend the coverage of DSC distress call monitoring to over 200-miles offshore. The number of recreational vessels which will make trips more than 200-miles offshore is a very tiny fraction or subset of recreational vessels that go three-miles offshore, and there would not be much burden imposed if those far-ranging recreational vessels were required to equip with an emergency beacon.

Hoosier posted 10-27-2011 10:08 PM ET (US)     Profile for Hoosier  Send Email to Hoosier     
This is for the lawyers on the forum.

The language in the US Code is "emergency locator beacons for recreational vessels", this does not say EPIRBs (emergency position-indicating radio beacons) nor does it say PLB (personal locator beacon). As Dave P noted in an offline discussion:

I have both an EPIRB and PLB. If you are considering either, I would go with the PLB. My EPIRB is registered to my boat, the PLB is registered to me. I bought the PLB so I could use it for other activities, like snowmobiling. Even if my EPIRB were practical to carry on a snowmobile, I'm not sure how COPAS-SARSAT would react to its activation in the dead of winter in central Minnesota.

So. an EPIRB is tied to a specific boat, like an MMSI. That means that you cannot move your Beacon from one vessel to another, that a PIHA if you have two boats and only one PLB. I have two Whalers, either of which could be outside the 3 mile rule. I sure don't want to have a $500++ EPIRB on each boat, a PLB that's tied to me, not my boat, makes a whole lot more sense.

So, lawyers, which is it, EPIRB or PLB?

K Albus posted 10-28-2011 09:06 AM ET (US)     Profile for K Albus  Send Email to K Albus     
The U.S. Coast Guard's Global Maritime Distress Safety System Task Force is recommending that the Coast Guard implement regulations requiring all recreational boats going more than three miles offshore to carry either an EPIRB or a PLB. See:

The Task Force is also recommending that the Coast Guard consider whether a VHF radio with DCS and an embedded or connected GPS should be considered the equivalent of an emergency locator beacon within 20 miles of shore, in light of the effectiveness of the Rescue 21 system.

On the EPIRB vs. PLB question, a PLB offers much more flexibility and costs less. The PLB is smaller, can be moved from vessel to vessel, and as Mr. Pendleton pointed out, can even be used for land based activities. An EPIRB is larger, more expensive, is tied to a single vessel, and is not intended for on-land use.

My new boat has a VHF radio with DSC and a connected GPS. I hope that will be sufficient if the Coast Guard decides to implement an emergency locator beacon requirement. If it is not, I will likely purchase a PLB - either the McMurdo Fast Find 210 or the ACR ResQlink 406 GPS. The ACR unit costs about $60 more, but it has the capability to send "I'm okay" messages via satellite.

McMurdo Fast Find 210:

ACR ResQlink 406 GPS: resqlink-406-gps/

jimh posted 10-28-2011 11:56 AM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
Kevin--You have added some most interesting information. I am chagrined to see my earlier posting about use of RESCUE 21 to a range of 20-miles is contained in the recommendation. I had not seen the committee's recommendation before now.
K Albus posted 10-28-2011 12:14 PM ET (US)     Profile for K Albus  Send Email to K Albus     
Jim - Why the chagrin? It appears that you and the GMDSS Task Force are on the same page. If you have a VHF with DSC and a connected GPS, and you are within 20 miles of shore, you shouldn't need to also carry an EPIRB or a PLB.
contender posted 10-28-2011 01:04 PM ET (US)     Profile for contender  Send Email to contender     
What if you boat does not carry a battery for a VHF, also Hoosier made some good points... You are out in your own boat if you wish to be ill prepared so be it.
jimh posted 10-28-2011 02:52 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
Maybe "chagrined" is not the right word. I was more taken by surprise that the USCG had made a recommended that was just about exactly congruent with what I suggested, even down to the 20-mile distance. I must have been channeling the author of that report.
OutrageMan posted 10-28-2011 07:36 PM ET (US)     Profile for OutrageMan  Send Email to OutrageMan     
My family has been boating in the Great Lakes since the 50's. For as long as I can remember we always had radios on board all our boats - I believe the vernacular at the time was "ship-to-shore radio."

Just wondering out loud here, but could it be that radios were not mandated and were actually excluded because at the time they required licensure to operate? So in essence, the federal government would require you to purchase an item, and then purchase a license to use it? I am no lawyer, but it seems that there would be some sort of conflict there (maybe between the Commerce Clause, and the FCC regulations as an example)? Again, I am fairy ignorant on the inner working of the subject and this is purely speculation.


David Pendleton posted 10-28-2011 09:11 PM ET (US)     Profile for David Pendleton  Send Email to David Pendleton     
Both my beacons are made by ACR, so I looked around on their web site for information regarding the two types of beacons and a comparison of each.

I found this: PLB%20V%20EPIRB.pdf

Based on this and information found on other forums, it appears that the two major differences between the beacons are battery life and how you "run" them.

An EPRIB is designed to be tossed (or automatically released) into the water. In fact, mine has a built-in spool of nylon line you are supposed to extend before you deploy the beacon into the water, after which you tie it off to your vest or raft if you're lucky.

Since a PLB also has a GPS antenna (not all EPIRB do), the antenna must be out of the water and exposed to a clear sky for best performance. This might mean holding it over your head if you're in the water.

From the same web site, a comparison of a PLB versus a SPOT messenger, 406%20V%20Spot.pdf

And finally, and ACR PLB versus McMurdo's Fast Find. FF%20Vs%20AquaLink.pdf

Hoosier posted 10-29-2011 03:28 AM ET (US)     Profile for Hoosier  Send Email to Hoosier     
I don't understand this statement

"Since a PLB also has a GPS antenna (not all EPIRB do),"

How does an EPIRB know where it is?

David Pendleton posted 10-29-2011 07:09 AM ET (US)     Profile for David Pendleton  Send Email to David Pendleton     
It doesn't; the COPAS-SARSAT satellites use doppler location to find you.

See here: beacon-coding-tutorial/230

This can take time, so an EPIRB equipped with GPS has a distinct advantage over one that does not.

Hoosier posted 10-29-2011 08:12 AM ET (US)     Profile for Hoosier  Send Email to Hoosier     
After looking at the sites listed in this thread I've concluded that a PLB makes more sense than a EPIRB for the "normal" recreational boater. The big discriminator that I see is the dual freqency transmitter, 406 mhz and 121.5 mhz. If the 406 channel can't connect with a satellite the 121.5 chnnel still is available for local resources, like Rescue 21, to find you.
jimh posted 10-29-2011 10:05 AM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
I don't know that RESCUE 21 is set to monitor 121.5-MHz. The RESCUE 21 antennas for direction finding consist of a eight vertical element circular arrangement, and they're probably tuned for the 156-MHz VHF Marine Band. The RESCUE 21 base station is on shore, so I would not consider it to be "local" to the offshore distress location.

At this moment I am not aware of any published coverage maps for the RESCUE 21 system. The USCG Navigation Center webpage says:

**Notice regarding VHF coverage charts below**: We plan to update the VHF coverage charts based upon the new Rescue 21 system now being deployed. However, the Rescue 21 Project office is devoting all their resources toward installing the new system and have consequently informed us that they will not be able to provide us updated charts for at least several more months. When they become available, we will quickly post them here. For now, the 1994 coverage plots are the best we have available. Thank you for your patience.

My understanding is that 121.5-MHz is no longer monitored by the COPAS satellite system. It is intended for on-scene locating from aircraft in a search. It's useful once they know you are in distress and know you are in the vicinity. It is not a distress alerting frequency or a long-range DF homing beacon.

If my boat were more than 20-miles offshore and in distress, I would make a VHF Marine Band radio DSC distress call. It would go out with 25-watts from my radio antenna which is about ten feet above the water. The chance that this signal will be received by RESCUE 21 is, in my opinion, much greater than if I am in the water, holding a 1-watt PLB about 1-foot above the water.

jimh posted 10-29-2011 10:25 AM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
In a 2005 article I found this citation of the RESCUE 21 coverage goals:

The new [RESCUE 21] system has a minimum performance goal of communicating by DSC and voice with a 1-watt VHF radio six feet off the water up to 20 miles offshore along 98 percent of the 95,000 miles of shoreline watched over by the Coast Guard.

That same article also cites the average tower height will be 350-feet. We can make an approximation of the radio range between two stations with antenna heights of 350-feet and 10-feet to be at least 30-miles (line of sight), and possibly farther due to normal refraction. I would speculate that with a typical boat radio you should be in range of the USCG RECSUE 21 shore station as long as you were not more than about 40-miles away. That's the direct distance to the station, not your distance offshore, unless you happen to be abeam the RESCUE 21 station.

jimh posted 10-29-2011 12:53 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
I found this photograph of the RESCUE 21 direction-finding antenna on a USCG presentation. In this view the antenna is not in position, but it mounted on a portable trailer with a crank-up tower, intended to be used for adding a station in emergency situations to the network at a disaster site. You can see the details of the antenna. It has nine elements spaced at 40-degree intervals.

USCG Photograph of RESCUE 21 direction finding antenna

OutrageMan posted 10-29-2011 01:21 PM ET (US)     Profile for OutrageMan  Send Email to OutrageMan     
Do SSB radios come into play here at all? Or do they fall into a whole other category?



jimh posted 10-29-2011 05:45 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
Most small boats do not have a single-sideband high-frequency Marine Band radio. On the other hand, pleasure craft that are routinely making trips far offshore ought to consider the installation of a SSB HF radio for marine use. Typically an SSB HF radio will have longer ground wave coverage during the day.
Hoosier posted 10-30-2011 06:34 AM ET (US)     Profile for Hoosier  Send Email to Hoosier     
I just looked at the Canadaian VHF coverage map for the Great Lakes and it looks like they have full VHF DSC coverage of their waters.

Go to page 4-28.

Interestingly they have full coverage of Isle Royale while the USCG coverage maps indicate that we don't.

jimh posted 10-30-2011 09:50 AM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
Here is the coverage map mentioned above: VHF_CoverageMapGreatLakes.jpg

6992WHALER posted 10-30-2011 11:13 AM ET (US)     Profile for 6992WHALER  Send Email to 6992WHALER     
I just found a video tutorial about DSC communications.
I have not watched it all but it looks like it covers a lot of information in easy to understand language.

lizard posted 11-14-2011 09:52 AM ET (US)     Profile for lizard  Send Email to lizard     
" You are out in your own boat if you wish to be ill prepared so be it."

I guess that would be fine, if the operator, and all of the passengers understand that NO RESCUE attempt will be made, due to the time and expense a rescue costs. I don't have a problem with a PLB/EPIRB being required, I can spend the same amount on fuel yearly, in a year of heavy boat use.

I remember one of the important features being that some beacons send a signal location at the time of deployment only (and location is not updated), sending the coordinates that theoretically are transmitted when you go into the water. Other beacons track with you, so that if/when you drift, your updated location is transmitted.

I have heard about inconsistency problems with the SPOT, that are supposedly addressed in SPOT II.

Hoosier posted 11-19-2011 07:52 AM ET (US)     Profile for Hoosier  Send Email to Hoosier     
This comment raises an interesting question, if we look at the speculation in the " Boaters Stranded in the Gulf of Mexico" thread those guys may have drifted many miles before being found. So many in fact that searchers who went to the original distress point might not have found them at all if that was the only position sent by a PLB.
David Pendleton posted 11-19-2011 11:50 PM ET (US)     Profile for David Pendleton  Send Email to David Pendleton     
It isn't the only position sent. No modern GPS-enabled beacon sends the coordinates only once.

I'm not even sure older beacons ever worked this way.

GPS-enabled or not, the beacon is transmitting on 406Mhz, and the COPAS-SARSAT satellites will eventually determine your position.

jimh posted 11-20-2011 12:44 AM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
The 406-MHz distress beacon transmitters seem to work very effectively. Earlier this year the USCG SAR group had a blog that included a story about a single-handed sailor who had a big problem in the middle of the Indian Ocean. They set off their distress beacon transmitter. The monitoring system worked like clockwork. Her distress beacon was received, along with her position. A few hours later a commercial airline flight diverted and flew over her boat, as a way of acknowledgement of the distress call.

ASIDE: That USCG SAR blog seems to have been removed. It was being hosted on a non-government site. You can find search and rescue news from the USCG now posted to

jimh posted 11-20-2011 12:54 AM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
If you buy a distress beacon transmitter, you might be interested to know who will be listening for the signal. Apparently in the United State of America, the agency that listens is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA. Here is a link to their website on the topic:

At first I thought it was strange that NOAA would be involved instead of the Coast Guard, but upon more thought, I concluded that it was NOAA's expertise with satellites that caused them to be selected. The search and rescue monitoring system uses satellites as the primary listening posts. Since NOAA is more likely to be in the business of operating satellites than the USCG, it seems reasonable that NOAA would be the satellite search and rescue agency.

David Pendleton posted 11-20-2011 06:32 PM ET (US)     Profile for David Pendleton  Send Email to David Pendleton     
Incidentally, here is a picture of a registered beacon.

jimh posted 11-23-2011 12:19 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
I want to pick up on a remark made earlier in the discussion that I should have commented on. Regarding why the FBSA 1971 did not provide for the option to mandate recreational boats to equip themselves with radios, Brian said:

...could it be that radios were not mandated and were actually excluded because at the time they required licensure to operate? So in essence, the federal government would require you to purchase an item, and then purchase a license to use it?

That is a very interesting observation, and I think it may be part of the reasoning. It is likely that in 1971 the FCC may have required a station license and an operator license for a VHF Marine Band radio. In the decades since, the FCC has dropped any requirement for licensing of a recreational ship station and does not require an operator license for use of VHF Marine Band radio stations on recreational vessels.

On the other hand, if the language of the FBSA 1971 was going to be modified, why not just include radios in the range of mandatory equipment for boaters going offshore?

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