Emergency at Sea

Post by: Dee White
13 September 2012

Most seafarers have studied or been examined on the rules regarding emergencies at sea. Fortunately emergencies happen rarely, but it’s easy to forget what you’ve learned, or simply to remember procedures which are out of date, just because you’ve never had to put them into practice. It’s well worth while taking a few minutes to refresh your memory.

DSC (digital selective calling)

If you have VHF radio with DSC, you should first send a distress signal by activating the distress button. All DSC-equipped vessels and Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres (MRCCs) in the area will automatically receive details about your vessel and position and you can include information about your problem. Make sure that your DSC is connected to a GPS (Global Positioning System), otherwise you’ll give an incorrect position unless you make regular manual positioning updates. The alert will be repeated every four minutes until it’s acknowledged. All MRCCs in the UK and most European coastguards are equipped with VHF DSC and they will respond quickly when called. You should then follow it up with a voice Mayday message on channel 16. If you accept assistance from another boat you should inform the coastguard and stop the DSC alert.

Mayday Calls

The word "Mayday" derives from the French "venez m’aider" meaning "help me" or "come to my aid".

A Mayday is a situation in which a vessel or person is in grave or imminent danger and needs immediate assistance. Examples include sinking, explosion, fire, piracy, man-overboard and serious life threatening personal injury.

Mayday calls are equivalent to a Morse SOS code or a telephone call to emergency services and can be made on any frequency, but it is normal to broadcast on VHF radio channel 16 as this is the calling, listening and recognised emergency channel. The Coastguard monitor Channel 16 and the VHF signal operates roughly within 30 miles of the nearest shore depending on radio propagation.When a Mayday distress call has been made onChannel 16, it imposes general radio silence on the channel, except for those assisting with the Mayday, until the emergency is over.

A hoax Mayday call is regarded as a criminal act in many countries, putting rescuers’ lives in danger, causing a huge waste of money and time and potentially stopping search and rescue teams from attending genuine emergencies elsewhere. For example, in the USA, a false distress call carries a penalty of up to 6 years imprisonment and a fine of $250,000.

Remember that although in normal circumstances you need to have passed an exam to obtain a VHF radio licence before you can legally broadcast on VHF radio, anyone may use the VHF to summon help in an emergency.

How to make a Mayday call

The word "Mayday" is spoken three times, followed by the vessel’s name or call sign spoken three times, then "Mayday" again and the name or call sign. You must then give vital information including position, type of emergency and number of people on board. A typical Mayday call might be:-

  • Mayday, Mayday, Mayday
  • This is My-yacht, My-yacht, My-yacht (call sign)
  • Position 55º 50'5 North 004º 57'4 West.
  • My vessel is holed and sinking
  • I requireimmediate assistance
  • 5 people on board, one badly injured
  • Mayday, My-yacht, Over

Mayday Relay

A Mayday Relay call is made by a vessel on behalf of a different vessel in distress. If a Mayday call is not acknowledged by the coastguard after one repetition and a 2 minute wait, then any vessel who has received the Mayday call should try to contact the coastguard on behalf of the distressed vessel by broadcasting a Mayday Relay. This should use the call sign or name of the transmitting vessel but give the position of the Mayday vessel. It can be used when the vessel in distress is either too far offshore to contact the coastguard direct or is without radio capabilities. A typical Mayday Relay might be:-

  • Mayday Relay, Mayday Relay, Mayday Relay
  • This is My-yacht, My-yacht, My-yacht (call sign)
  • The following distress call was received from yacht Hopeful at 14.35 hours.
  • Mayday, Mayday, Mayday
  • This is Hopeful, Hopeful, Hopeful (call sign)
  • Position49º 44'5 North 001º 25'5 West
  • We are on fire and sinking
  • 3 people on board, one with burn injuries
  • We are taking to the life raft
  • Mayday, Hopeful, Over
  • Message ends
  • This is Yacht My-yacht out

Pan-Pan

A Pan-Pan is used to signify that there is a state of urgency on board, but no immediate danger to life or to the vessel. It informs the emergency services and other craft that the vessel requires assistance but is not in grave or imminent danger. The French word "panne" refers to mechanical failure or breakdown of some kind.

Calling procedure is similar to that of a Mayday, substituting the word "Pan-Pan" for "Mayday", followed by the relevant information about the vessel, position and nature of problem. If the problem is resolved, the emergency services and other craft in the area should be notified. Don’t forget a Pan-Pan call can be upgraded to a Mayday if the situation deteriorates to the point of "grave and imminent danger". A Pan-Pan has priority over all other radio traffic except for Maydays, but after obtaining a response to your Pan-Pan you should make arrangements to transfer to another channel, leaving channel 16 free for emergencies.

Mobile Phone

You can use your mobile phone to dial 999/112 and ask for the Coastguard, but it should not be relied on because the signal is very limited and it will not alert other vessels.

Flares

You can fire a red parachute flare or a red hand-held flare at night in an emergency, or use orange smoke in daytime. They should not, however, be relied upon to raise an alert, as they need someone else to notice them, recognise what they mean and then get help.

What response will you get to an emergency call?

When the coastguard receives a distress call he will acknowledge it and respond, probably asking for more information. The coastguard will then decide how to deal with the situation, possibly sending lifeboats, search and rescue helicopters or coastguard rescue teams. He may also contact other vessels in your area, asking them to assist. It is a legal requirement for other vessels to help if they are able, whether contacted by the coastguard, or if they hear the mayday and are in close proximity.Whatever help the coastguards provide, they will guide you through the rescue procedure. If you have to take to the life-raft after making a Mayday call, do remember to inform the authorities so they know about your change of situation.

What if you receive a distress signal?

Any vessel receiving a distress signal or seeing a boat in distress in their area must respond to it as best they can, as long as they do not endanger their boat or their crew.

How can you help yourselves?

  • Stay calm, especially if you are in charge.
  • Ensure your radio is always switched on while at sea and tuned to channel 16.
  • Keep your call sign, name (in phonetic alphabet) and list of distress procedures near the radio and practice the phonetic alphabet.
  • Speak clearly and slowly, splitting numbers, for example "one-six" instead of "sixteen".
  • Make sure that all your crew know how to operate the radio even if they haven’t got a licence and that they know the emergency call procedures.
  • If possible keep one person on standby on the radio for as long as is safely possible.
  • While waiting for a response to your Mayday call - prepare flares, life rafts, life jackets, gather emergency supplies, hand held radios and grab-bags as long as it is safe to do so. Ideally each member of the crew should have their own personal grab-bag containing money, credit card, passport, mobile phone, etc.
  • Get yourself and the crew into the safest place on your vessel, checking that they are all OK. Don’t forget a crew member obliviously sleeping below decks. Remind yourself and crew about how to launch the life raft in case the worst happens. Remember though, only to get into the life raft as a very last resort…..you should only ever step up into a life raft (that is - only if your vessel is sinking) unless it is on fire or there is danger of explosion.

Most people sail the seas happily for years without ever experiencing an emergency, but it is worth remembering that emergencies happen without warning or sometimes even without a logical reason. The time might come when you are unlucky – so be prepared. It doesn’t take much time to review emergency procedures and relay them to your crew – and it could easily mean the difference between life and death.

Author – Dee White

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