Surviving an Ocean Emergency (Part 1: the Mayday distress call)

Even if you spend countless hours preparing for a voyage, there’s always the possibility that an unforeseen event could significantly impact your trip. Whether it’s a sudden storm that knocks out your GPS (good thing you have your paper charts, right?) or an uncharted rock that damages your vessel, it is very important to make it known that you’re in distress as quickly as you can.

The easiest means you have of receiving immediate help is via radio, which is what we’ll be touching on today. The “Mayday” distress call is an internationally recognized signal that takes absolute priority over all other radio transmissions, meaning that if any mariner hears a distress call on their radio, they must immediately cease all transmissions that may interfere with it.

When should you use a Mayday distress call? Only when you are threatened by “grave and imminent” danger and need immediate assistance. There’s a specific format to a Mayday. According to United States Coast Guard (USCG), “Speak slowly and clearly…Call: ‘Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, This is…(followed by the vessel’s call sign and name repeated THREE times).’”

After signaling for help, provide information on who you are, your location, the nature of the emergency, the kind of assistance you need, the number of people that are on board and their condition, a description of your boat, and any other information that may possibly lead to your rescue.

 It’s important to note that you SHOULD NOT use the Mayday distress call if you’re out of gas, lost or having engine trouble. The Mayday distress call is for those in immediate and pressing danger; using Mayday for something unimportant degrades the significance of the call.

Please don’t even think about “testing it out” to see if it works: the USCG is clear that the government will “prosecute to the full extent of the law violators who make hoax distress calls.” What’s the punishment if you’re found guilty? For starters, you could serve up to six years in prison, not to mention the $250,000 fine. So don’t mess around with the Mayday call and use it only when truly necessary.

Next up: what to do if you have to abandon ship.


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