“Mayday” is an international term used to alert emergency services by radio communication. When sailing, it’s important to understand how and when to make a mayday call.
When to Make a Mayday Call
A mayday call is used at sea to alert emergency services that a vessel or its persons are in “grave and imminent” danger and require immediate assistance.
Reasons to Issue a Mayday Call
- A Sinking Vessel
- A Man Overboard (See Man Overboard Procedure Below)
- An Onboard Fire or Explosion
- Any Life-Threatening Injury
When someone issues a mayday call, emergency services deploy their resources in response. For this reason, it’s illegal to make a false or unjustified mayday call in most countries – as emergency workers are putting their lives in danger to respond. In the United States, a false distress call carries a penalty of up to six years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
With such harsh penalties, understanding the difference between maritime emergency calls is essential. A “Pan-Pan” Call, for example, is used to indicate events such as mechanical failures or non-life-threatening medical emergencies. While these types of troubles can escalate if not addressed, they are not an immediate threat.
If your boat’s emergency beacon activates accidentally, call the coast guard or emergency services immediately to inform them of the mistake. Most often, a mistake will not be met with harsh repercussions.
How to Make a Mayday Call
Before sailing to a new location, you should identify local emergency services and know how to contact them. The Department of Transport is often a useful resource for finding emergency frequency channels specific to your location.
If you’ve determined that a mayday call is appropriate, follow the following steps:
- Turn your radio on – Turn your VHF-FM receiver to channel 16, and turn the transmission power to “High.”
- Locate, Press, and Hold the Red Distress Call Button – This is a red button located somewhere on the radio receiver. Once activated, it will send your boat’s registered information to emergency services.
- State your Emergency – Loudly and clearly say, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday,” “This is vessel (your boat name).” Ensure your transmission power is on the highest setting available so that emergency services hear your voice.
* Repeat – Repeat the above three times.
- Provide Your Exact Position – Having GPS on-board will let you quickly give your longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates. If you’re not able to give your exact coordinates, estimate the distance to any known landmark.
- Describe Your Boat – Color, size, and identifying features such as sails or solar panels can help rescue services identify you if you aren’t the only vessel in the area.
- State the Number of People on Board.
- In Detail, Explain the Nature of Your Emergency – If your vessel is sinking, estimate the time you have remaining. Let them know if you plan to abandon the vessel to a liferaft, dinghy, or just to the water. If there’s a fire on board, tell them how you are attempting to control it and whether you think you can contain it. Give as much detail as possible.
- Say “Over” and Listen for a Response – After one minute, repeat steps 3-7 until you receive a response.
Alternative Ways to Make a Distress Call
While your VHF should always be the first approach for issuing an emergency call, you can use alternative methods. The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) is an internationally agreed-upon search and rescue system. Specific safety procedures, equipment, and communication protocols make location identification and communication easier in the sea’s more remote areas.
Although not required on recreational vessels, the following equipment is available for installation:
- Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB): Coordinates with satellites to indicate rescue coordinates.
- Navtex: Issues navigational warnings, forecasts, and search and rescue notices.
- INMARSAT: Global satellite network.
- Digital Selective Calling (DSC): Ship to ship, ship to shore, and shore to ship radiotelephone.
While a cell phone likely won’t be of use, it’s a quick way to call for help when service is available.
Additionally, you should also keep low technology resources on board to signal an emergency. These include flares, flags, horns, flashlights, and signal mirrors – to name a few.
How to Help Another Vessel in Distress
If you hear a mayday call that isn’t being answered, you can choose to assist directly or help pass the message to emergency services. With Digital Selective Calling (DSC) installed on your boat, emergency calls from other vessels nearby will sound an alarm. If you’re notified of an emergency by the DCS or another way, follow these steps:
- Write Down All Available Information – Latitude, longitude, time of call, the boat’s name, the boat description, nature of the emergency, and how many people are on board.
- Call emergency Services – Repeat the distress call, clearly stating that you are relaying the message.
- Stand By for Response – Wait two minutes before repeating the message.
- Prepare to Assist the Vessel – If possible, prepare to assist the vessel in any way you can. Do not assist if the rescue will put you or others on board in danger.
Man Overboard Procedure
Man overboard scenarios account for approximately 24% of all boating fatalities, with 90% of those occurring in calm waters with swells less than one foot in height. In the event of a Man Overboard, you must act quickly and correctly to ensure a victim’s safety.
Execute the following steps without hesitation:
- Yell, “Man Overboard on Starboard/Portside!” and Sound the Horn Three Times – Immediately assign one of the crewmembers to maintain visual contact with the victim and point at them during the entire emergency. They should never take their eyes off of the victim for any reason. If you are unsure of the victim’s location, turn off all props on the boat to avoid potential danger until spotted. The horn will alert any crew members unaware of the emergency.
- Activate the “MOB” GPS, and Throw “MOB” Rescue Gear to the Victim– The GPS will mark the MOB position for future reference. Throw your boat’s rescue buoy as close to the victim as possible. You can also throw other inflatables to assist, but your most buoyant option is the rescue buoy.
- If Available, Throw a Smoke Flare to Indicate Position – Throw the flare as close to the buoy as possible. The flare will serve as a location reference while the captain maneuvers the boat for rescue. The throwing line will assist in pulling the victim to the boat.
- Begin to Maneuver the Vessel Back Toward the Victim and Prepare a Throwing Line – Approach the Victim Upwind
- Issue a Mayday and DSC Call If:
- A failed execution of IMMEDIATE rescue occurs.
- There is no rescue equipment to assist with reboarding, such as a rope ladder or rescue strops.
- The swells or currents are anything other than negligible, and there is no rescue equipment available to assist with re-boarding.
- Someone goes overboard in the late afternoon or at night.
- There is nobody else on board to assist with the rescue.
- Pull the Victim to the Boat – Once you have successfully pulled the victim to the boat, use the correct procedures to get them back on board. Choppy seas can make using the ladder a challenging and dangerous re-entry option, as you risk being drawn under and hit by the stern.
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