Sending a distress call is a call for help during an emergency situation by a mariner of a vessel. A distress call is considered a main priority by the US Coast Guard above all other transmissions. This means that when a mariner hears a distress call, he shall cease all transmissions that may interfere with the distress message and continue to listen to the call.
What You Need
The US Coast Guard recommends a VHF marine radio on board any vessel as a means for sending a distress call. A VHF marine radio is the most inexpensive and the single most important radio system that a mariner should have. If travelling more than a few miles offshore, purchase an MF/HF radiotelephone or mobile satellite phone, an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB), and a second VHF radio or cell phone.
Procedure for VHF Channel 16 MAYDAY
1. If you have a life-threatening emergency, transmit your distress message on Channel 16 (156.8 MHz), which is equivalent to a 911 call on land. Constantly monitored by the Coast Guard, it is the international hailing and distress frequency.
- MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY! This is (name of vessel three times).
- Give call sign or boat registration number.
- Mayday, this is (name of vessel)
- Report your position in latitude/longitude from the chart or GPS, LORAN lines, or a bearing and distance to a well-known landmark, such as a navigational aid or small island, or in any terms which will assist a responding station in locating the vessel in distress. Include any information on vessel movement such as course, speed and destination.
- Report nature of distress or difficulty (sinking, fire, etc.).
- Report the kind of assistance desired.
- Report the number of persons onboard and condition of any injured.
- Report description of the vessel and seaworthiness which might facilitate rescue, such as length or tonnage of vessel, color hull, cabin, masks, etc.
- Say “OVER”.
2. Wait for a response. If none, repeat the message.
3. Stay by the radio if possible. The Coast Guard’s search for your vessel will be made easier if you can transmit a continuous homing signal.
THIS IS SUNSHINE-SUNSHINE -SUNSHINE MI48895 MAYDAY THIS IS SUNSHINE
CAPE HENRY LIGHT BEARS 185 DEGREES MAGNETIC-DISTANCE 2 MILES
STRUCK SUBMERGED OBJECT
NEED PUMPS-MEDICAL ASSISTANCE AND TOW
TWO ADULTS, THREE CHILDREN ONBOARD
ONE PERSON COMPOUND FRACTURE OF ARM
ESTIMATE CAN REMAIN AFLOAT THREE HOURS
SUNSHINE IS THIRTY TWO FOOT CABIN CRUISER-WHITE HULL-GREEN DECK HOUSE
If Another Vessel Is in Distress
1. If you see or hear a distress message from a vessel, you must answer it. Give the following information:
- Your position, and the bearing and distance to the vessel in distress
- Nature of distress if known
- Description of the vessel in distress (color, length, power or sail, etc.)
- Your course and speed, etc.
- Whether or not you will be assisting the distressed level
- Repeat your radio call sign and name of your vessel
- Your listening frequency and schedule
2. If you are reasonably sure that the distressed vessel is not in your vicinity, wait for others to acknowledge it.
When to Send a Distress Call
Running out of gas, getting lost, or having engine trouble is not considered immediate danger; thus, a distress call or calling MAYDAY is not warranted. MAYDAY must be used during threatening situations only. To avoid sending a hoax distress call, mariners must familiarize themselves with the radiotelephone signals appropriate for their situation.
1. Distress Signal : The signal is “MAYDAY” spoken three times to indicate that the vessel is threatened by grave and imminent danger and requests immediate assistance.
2. Urgent Signal : The signal is “PAN-PAN” spoken three times to indicate that there is an urgent situation concerning the safety of a ship, aircraft or other vehicle, or the safety of a person.
3. Safety Signal : The signal is “SECURITY” spoken three times to transmit a message concerning the safety of navigation or to give important meteorological warnings.
Hoax Distress Calls
The Coast Guard stresses the importance of distress calls and does not tolerate hoax calls. The lives of the Coast Guard personnel are put to risk when they operate ships, boats and aircrafts in order to respond to hoax calls. A response situation also wastes taxpayers’ money, and the hoax call may also interfere with people who are in real need of rescue.
Making a distress call is a federal felony and offenders can face up to six years in prison, a criminal fine of $250,000, a civil fine of $5,000, and they must reimburse the Coast Guard for the cost of performing the search.
Visual Distress Signals (VDS)
Vessels must be equipped with Coast Guard-approved visual distress signals (pyrotechnic or nonpyrotechnic) when operating on coastal waters, the Great Lakes, or on the high seas. The following types of vessels are not required to carry day signals but must carry night signals when operating from sunrise to sunset.
- Boats less than 16 feet in length
- Boats used in events such as races, regattas, or marine parades
- Open sailboats less than 26 feet in length without propulsion machinery
- Manually propelled boats
When using pyrotechnic visual distress signals, the Coast Guard requires carrying a minimum of three in the vessel. Make sure that the signals are not past their expiration date, which may be 42 months after the date of manufacture. You can use the following combinations of signals to satisfy the Coast Guard requirements.
- 3 red handheld flares (day and night)
- 1 red handheld flare and 2 red parachute flares (day and night)
- 1 orange handheld smoke signal, 2 orange floating smoke signals (day) and 1 electric distress light (night only)
Nonpyrotechnic visual distress signals must also meet Coast Guard requirements, be in serviceable condition and readily accessible.
- Electric distress signal
- Orange distress flag
- Or, extend your arms out and raise them up and down to signal distress to another person within sight.
Watch this demonstration video on how to use visual distress signals properly.