Call of Duty

Any boater worth his salt should know how to make a distress call and what to do when he hears one
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Just because everyone has a cell phone in their pocket doesn’t mean the VHF radio is a quaint relic of past technology. Onboard, a VHF is an essential part of your safety kit. If you need help or want to broadcast critical information, there are established procedures depending on the urgency of the situation. Here’s what to do when you hear one and how to make an efficient call should you need to.

VHF channel 16 is dedicated to calling and distress messages. It’s the time-proven method to broadcast your situation to everyone around you. In a real distress situation, it might even make the difference between life and death. Because VHF radio waves are line-of-sight, limiting your signal range, another mariner hearing your call can relay your plight to the Coast Guard and come to your assistance while rescuers are rallying their response. Using the VHF taps you directly into the community of mariners all around you.

Remember, channel 16 is for distress, safety and hailing communications only. The law prohibits any form of communication on this channel that might adversely affect the transmission or reception of distress, urgency or safety calls. That means channel 16 is not for radio checks, idle chatter or broadcasting the national anthem on Independence Day. Any of these uses interferes with the availability of this channel to remain open for the important things. There are three safety VHF channel 16 categories, listed here in increasing levels of importance: Sécurité, Pan-Pan and Mayday. Each one is dedicated to particular types of announcements or requests.

Sécurité (pronounced sea-cur-i-tay) is exactly what it sounds like, security. This type of call is used to broadcast information about the safety of navigation. It is used to transmit significant weather information and exceptional vessel maneuvers or report particular hazards to navigation, such as a dangerous object adrift. I like to think of a Sécurité call as a heads up safety announcement.

Pan-Pan (pronounced pahn-pahn) is the international urgency call for a situation onboard that is significant but not an immediate threat to either the vessel or those onboard. Panne means “breakdown” in French. Most often, we hear a Pan-Pan message broadcast by the Coast Guard on behalf of another vessel, asking anyone nearby to render assistance or to help look for someone overboard. If you lose propulsion or navigation ability, get fouled or if you’ve developed a controllable leak, if there’s someone overboard and in sight, or any other situation onboard that is not life-threatening, you may make a Pan-Pan call on VHF channel 16. When you make your call, slowly and clearly communicate your boat’s name, your position, the nature of the problem/request for assistance and the number of people onboard.

A typical Pan-Pan announcement might sound like this: “Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan. This is the 30-foot fishing boat Josie, Josie, Josie. Located 8 miles due south of Montauk Point in position 40 degrees 56.4 minutes North and 71 degrees 51.3 minutes West. We are leaking slowly with four people onboard. Requesting standby
assistance.”

Mayday is the real deal—the distress message requiring the most urgent response. A Mayday call is only to be used if the vessel or someone aboard is in grave or imminent danger and requires assistance. Mayday comes from the French M’Aidez, meaning “help me.” If the vessel is sinking, on fire, disabled and being swept onto a dangerous lee shore, or if someone is gravely injured or in need of critical medical assistance, a Mayday call on VHF channel 16 is in order. Identify the vessel, its location, the nature of the emergency and the number of people onboard. Repeat the word Mayday and your vessel’s name three times. If no response is raised, continue the Mayday periodically, listening for a reply in between transmitting. Do so for as long as it takes, or until the radio fails. A Mayday call might sound like this: “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is the 30-foot fishing boat Josie, Josie, Josie.
Located 8 miles due south of Montauk Point in position 40 degrees 56.4 minutes North and 71 degrees 51.3 minutes West. We are sinking with four people onboard and require immediate assistance.”

When making a Pan-Pan or Mayday call, I recommend you also include a description of your location in addition to your GPS coordinates. You could say something like this: “I’m located 8 miles due south of Montauk Light.” This information can help other mariners form an immediate idea of your proximity.

Ensuring the radio is on high power will extend the call’s range. Speak slowly and annunciate clearly, to enhance your recipient’s ability to copy your information down. It’s a good idea to have a prepared pro-forma Mayday card or written distress procedures prepared. This helps a panicked user stay calm. As in all seamanship, make sure your watch standers know how to use the VHF, understand the proper etiquette and procedures and know the fastest way to produce your present GPS coordinates in an emergency.

If you hear a Mayday call, listen carefully to the details and write the information down. Acknowledge that you copy the Mayday on channel 16, determine the caller’s proximity, and assist if needed. Listeners are required to cease any transmissions that might interfere with distress traffic and continue to monitor until satisfied that assistance is being rendered. Relay the distress call if you conclude the sender has not received help.

New radios come equipped with Digital Selective Calling (DSC) to establish automatic radio distress calling. DSC gives your VHF a Mayday button, labelled “distress.” When set up properly, it’s like an automated 911 response system for boaters. If the button is activated, the VHF automatically broadcasts a coded distress call, including your position and vessel description, that will be received by nearby vessels’ DSC radios and the U.S.
Coast Guard.

If you have an older VHF that doesn’t have GPS already integrated for DSC, your electronics technician can easily connect it to your stand-alone GPS.

To use the DSC feature, you must first obtain a Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number. Your MMSI is your boat’s assigned 9-digit identification code, like a phone number for your vessel, specific to your boat and maintained in the
national emergency database. If yours is a U.S. flagged recreational boat used in domestic waters, you may acquire your free MMSI with BoatU.S. or the U.S. Power Squadron, both authorized by the FCC. Or use the paperwork provided with a new DSC radio purchase to register for a MMSI. Your VHF manual will give instructions on programming in your MMSI.

Here’s an important note: If you use your VHF radio’s DSC button, you need to make a voice follow-up distress call on channel 16 that includes your MMSI number.

It’s worth mentioning that commercial vessels routinely use VHF channel 13, the channel dedicated to ship-to-ship working communications, to make Sécurité calls. Ships broadcast their location, their particular navigation restrictions—like backing out of a berth or maneuvering in a turning basin—and when any safety information is of interest to others. I often monitor channel 13 when on narrow rivers where visual contact is obscured, when crossing heavily trafficked shipping channels or in darkness while in proximity of a big port’s entrance.

Along with AIS, it’s the best way to stay abreast of the movements of commercial vessels. There’s nothing wrong with making your own responsible Sécurité call on channel 13. A ship’s bridge has a lot of information to track, and pilots are often thankful to get a brief update on a recreational vessel’s impending proximity and intentions.

Experienced boaters probably hear VHF messages in their sleep. But however commonplace, coming to the aid of someone in need is one of the most satisfying elements of seamanship. And if you’ve ever been in need yourself, it restores your faith in humanity when someone hears your call and becomes a seagoing Good Samaritan.

Monitor channel 16, and know how to communicate effectively in an emergency. And please do register your DSC radio. Your life might depend on it someday. 

This article was originally published in the June 2021 issue.

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