Sailing 101: What to Do When Someone Says Mayday!

Ahoy sailors, last lesson we talked about your VHF (Very High Frequency) radio, how it works, how to use it, and how to send out a distress call. The second part of that lesson is how to properly respond when someone sends out a distress call and you are on the receiving end, what to do if you come across a vessel that is in an emergency, and what to do if you are in an emergency. Stay tuned for your next lesson which will discuss flares.

If you hear a distress message from a vessel that goes unanswered, you must answer. Experienced captains write down coordinates if they hear a pan-pan or a mayday, and they are ready to stop what they are doing and come to your assistance if in range.

The radio procedure is always to be scanning Channel 16. If you hear a distress call, press the 16 button, which locks in that channel. Then grab your logbook and pen, ready to record any information relayed from the radio. In addition, you should mentally try to locate the mayday site regarding your own position and prepare your crew and boat to immediately head in that direction if it is nearby.

Even in dire circumstances, bringing a second boat to the scene can make a huge difference. Each year, many on-the-water emergencies are assisted by good Samaritans who arrive on the scene before rescue crews.

Never assume that someone else will handle a mayday call. If you hear an unanswered call, immediately get on the radio, and acknowledge the mayday, boat name, boat location, and nature of distress. Then try to relay the mayday to the Coast Guard.

If a Mayday call is issued offshore and you are within range, immediately stop your on-the-water activities and head for the emergency location.

Recommendations and Warnings:

  • Always use plain English on your VHF radio; do not use code words, abbreviations, or “CB talk.” CB is a citizen’s band radio used in many countries. It is a land mobile radio system that allows for short-distance person-to-persons bidirectional voice communication among individuals.
  • Limit your conversation to five minutes or less. There may be others trying to use that channel for emergencies or to help.
  • Remember, if you issue a MAYDAY call, your first course of action is to have everyone put a lifejacket on.
  • Always remember, foul language and false distress signals are illegal; you can be prosecuted for either.

If you are in an actual Mayday situation, stay tuned to channel 16The Coast Guard will handle everything on that single channel. However, for non-emergency help, the watch stander may ask you to switch to channel 22, the Coast Guard’s working channel for carrying on informal conversations that aren’t about life-threatening problems.

If you hear a Mayday call on channel 16 and you are not in danger, do not transmit on 16 while the Coast Guard and the boat-in-distress are communicating, or you may interfere with the emergency communications. When one party talks on a channel, it blocks out all other conversations on that channel.

The Coast Guard will send out a rescue boat or, sometimes, a helicopter in response to any Mayday call, or in special cases where your boat has a dangerous mechanical problem, where someone onboard has a serious medical problem, where the weather is worsening rapidly, or when it’s getting dark.

When a rescue vessel arrives, follow the orders of Coast Guard crews. USCG personnel are law-enforcement officers as well as first-responders. Remember, depending on where you are, and what the conditions of the seas are, it can take quite some time for a Coast Guard response boat to get to where you are. Therefore, it is extremely important to immediately put your lifejacket on and if you have a leak don’t abandon ship for as long as it is safe.

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