Emergency situation
In an emergency transmit this information first
Published: 6/25/2017

Make sure that your sailing crew or sailing partner understand the procedure to make an effective MAYDAY! broadcast on your marine radio. After all--it could save your life and the lives of your sailing crew.

As a former US Coast Guard search and rescue coxswain and Pacific ocean rescue coordinator, nothing bothered me and my team of Coasties quite as much as losing a vessel--all from the lack of one vital piece of information.

We are all are human, and sometimes, in a high state of panic or stress, we tend to forget the priorities. The military drills every day so this doesn't happen. That way, when the brown stuff hits the fan, your response will be on autopilot.

Any sailing skipper would be wise to make this a natural part of his or her everyday sailing ritual. This will help you stay "Always Ready" to meet the challenge of a survival at sea emergency. Here's why...

Reality Check for Vessels in Distress

In the Coast Guard, we would sometimes receive the MAYDAY! call, followed by the vessel name, color, type of boat, type of rig, how long it was, how many people on board, and the nature of distress. And then lost the transmission altogether. Why?

Because the small cruising sailboat or racing sailboat lost power. Maybe water was flooding into the hull from a hole or crack. The water level rose to the level of the batteries and shorted out the system.

Gone. Nothing doing. And there we were. Ready to go with winter exposure suits and rescue equipment. Frozen in time. Stunned. Another one lost from lack of one single vital piece of information. So, here's a revision to all the books, pamphlets, and media you might have read. In an emergency at sea...

Forget the type of boat. Forget the color of the boat. Forget the length, type of rig, number of people on board. If necessary, forget the nature of distress. Forget transmitting any of this information until you have provided rescuers with the one thing they need to start moving toward you--Your Position!

Transmit Position Early in an Emergency

Here's a sample of two identical boats with the same type of distress and what happens as they transmit a distress call:

  • Example 1:
    MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY Vessel " Wave-Runner" taking on water, one person injured, .......go....dow.....per.....s........ssss.....pos....4...3...

  • Example 2:
    MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY Vessel "Wave-Runner" in position 44-23 North, 83-16 West, taking....o.......wa....on.....per.....jur........d.....lp....rev....

    Notice how the transmission broke up and became garbled when "Wave-Runner" lost power. As a rescuer, could you move toward vessel "Wave-Runner" in Example 1 or Example 2? In Example 2, you have everything you need to move right now--her position at 44-23 North; 83-16 West!

    Go Behind the Scenes of a Rescue Operation

    In a rescue center, the action has just begun to unfold. Within minutes, small boats, ships, helos and fixed-wing C-130s can be launched to drop supplies, pumps, survival gear, or rescue swimmers. Resources can be called up from Marine, Navy, and Air Force bases across the country.

    Search and Rescue (SAR) Coordinators can contact merchant vessels and ask them to head toward the distress position. Many merchies are on a net called AMVER, which is the Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue System. It's voluntary and worldwide.

    The Coast Guard knows moment-by-moment the exact location of vessels within the AMVER system and can re-route them in a matter of seconds. Merchies carry medical staff and have equipment aboard to handle just about any type of emergency.

    This happens every day of the week at a big rescue center. It's one of the few super returns you get for your tax dollars. Learn to use the benefits of this system to your advantage.

    But remember that distress means imminent loss of life or loss of your vessel unless you get help right away. Under no circumstance should you make a MAYDAY! call for anything less than one of these criteria. That places the life of rescuers in peril. Pass that along to all hands aboard.