Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

No not the bank holiday where most lucky people get a well-deserved day off from work… we’re talking about a much more important Mayday, the international call signal of life-threatening distress!

The History

But where did the phrase come from? We can thank Frederick Stanley Mockford, a senior radio officer at London’s Croydon Airport. After being asked to come up with a word that would be easily understood in an emergency, he proposed ‘Mayday’, derived from the French term “Venez m’aider” which translates to “Come and help me”.

The Mayday Distress Call

Knowing how to make a distress call in an emergency is vital and could be the difference between life and death. So, if you don’t know, or you can’t remember the procedure, take note, as it could someday save your life.

Let’s start with Radios and their importance on a vessel. Before splashing out on any other gadgets for your boat, first and foremost make sure that you have a VHF radio, this is to make sure that in the event of an emergency, you can communicate with the Coastguard or another boat. VHF radios are also used to broadcast important safety information by the Coastguard, such as weather information, navigational warnings, and search and rescue notices.

Having a VHF onboard will require a license not just for the boat itself, but also for the person using it (though in the event of an emergency, anybody can use the radio to call for help). Failing to hold a license can result in a large fine or a prison sentence, so make sure you are covered before hitting the water!

Now onto the types of radio available. Your VHF can be either fixed, or portable, though a fixed radio is often preferred for larger vessels as it offers a greater range due to the extra power and external antenna. Most fixed VHF radios can contact Maritime and Coastguard Agency Centres within 20-30 miles of the coast; Portable radios may have a slightly shorter range, but if you are a dinghy sailor, jet skier or sea kayaker, they will be more space efficient.

Most new VHF radios come with DCS (Digital Selective Calling), when you register your DSC radio with the relevant regulatory body (for example OFCOM in the UK) you will receive an MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) number for the radio – basically your boats telephone number. In an emergency, your DSC radio can send a distress call at the touch of a button, it broadcasts a distress text message on Channel 70 to everyone in range. This will include your position if your DSC is linked to your GPS.

The Mayday signal should only be used in a true emergency, such as a man overboard, fire, or sinking, etc. The first step is to try and stay calm, so your message can be easily heard and understood so that the necessary help can get to you as soon as possible. The next step is to tune your radio to channel one-six (16) or 165.800MHz, these channels are monitored 24 hours a day bay Coastguards around the world.

How to make a Mayday distress call.

“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday”
“This is (name of vessel)” [spoken three times]
Your vessel's name, call sign and MMSI number [spoken once]
Your position
The nature of distress [for example, “the boat is sinking”]
Immediate assistance required
How many people are on board
Any other information

When you have made the distress call, wait for 15 seconds, if there is no response make the call again and repeat until you get a response.

A helpful way to remember this is by using the acronym, MIPDANIO.

M – Mayday

I – Identification,

P – Position,

D – Distress type,

A – Assistance required,

N – Number of people on board,

I – Information (additional information that should be passed on),

O – Over.

Everyone at hopes that you are never in the situation where you need to make a Mayday call, but as part of the basic safety for you, your crew and your vessel, everyone on board should know where the vhf radio is, how to use it and how to make a Mayday call if needed.

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