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911 on the water

Youngsters everywhere are taught how to make a 911 call, but how many children and teenagers get on a boat without knowing how to call for help?

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Sea Tow and Cobra Marine have partnered in an effort to promote the importance of having a VHF radio on board and knowing the right way to make a mayday call.

Read the tips below on how to properly place a mayday call, and watch the video as Soundings editor Bill Sisson joins Sea Tow's Kristen Frohnhoefer and Cobra Marine's Bill Boudreau as they teach one young woman the proper technique.

Mobile users, click here to watch on YouTube.

Place a proper mayday call

1. Tune your VHF radio to channel 16, press the push-to-talk button and, speaking slowly and clearly, say: "mayday, mayday, mayday."

2. "This is ..." (give the boat name three times).

3. Repeat "mayday" and the name of boat one more time.

4. Give the position of the boat by latitude and longitude or the bearing (specify true or magnetic) and distance to a well-known landmark or navigational aid, or in any way that will help rescuers find you.

5. State the nature of your distress (sinking, heart attack, fire, etc.).

6. Define the kind of assistance required (pumps, firefighting equipment, medical).

7. Give the number of people on board, any injuries and an estimate of the time the boat has left afloat.

8. Describe the boat, including length, color, type (convertible, sloop, etc.) and any other information that will help rescuers.

9. Say "Over," release the transmit button, and listen for a response. Repeat after 10 seconds if there is no response.

Remember, a mayday call should be made only when the boat or crew is in immediate and grave danger. It shouldn't be used for groundings, loss of power and the like. There are two other priority calls that can be made over channel 16: Pan and Security.

  • Pan-Pan (pronounced pahn-pahn) should be used when there is a risk to the safety of crew and vessel, but that risk falls below the threshold of immediate and grave.
  • Security (pronounced say-cur-i-tay) is the lowest-priority call and involves messages relating to safety and traffic, such as a serious hazard to navigation.

Although the Coast Guard isn't yet monitoring digital selective calling, some units and a number of Coast Guard vessels are equipped to receive DSC transmissions. And all commercial vessels of 300 gross tons must carry the radios.

To place a mayday call on a DSC-equipped radio with a maritime mobile service identity number, uncover the distress button and press it for five seconds. The radio will automatically switch to channel 70 - the DSC emergency channel - and transmit an all-ships alert. If your radio is connected to a GPS receiver (a must for fast response), it also will broadcast your lat/lon and the time. On most models, you can enter the nature of the distress from a menu of options. Very important: Boaters need to enter their nine-digit MMSI number into the radio's DSC memory before the radio can make a digital call.

If no acknowledgement is received, the radio automatically repeats the transmission in less than a minute. When a reply is received, it switches to channel 16 for voice communication.