Always be prepared is the Boy Scout motto, and it’s a good one. No one wants to endure an emergency at sea, but you must be ready for one. The quicker and more efficiently you can act, the better. Quick thinking and preparation can save lives. According to the US Coast Guard, there were 767 boating deaths in 2020. Many of those likely could have been prevented. One of the most important things you can do is learn how to call for help in an emergency.

Using Your VHF Radio

A marine VHF radio is a vital piece of safety equipment for boaters. In many ways, this is your lifeline. Before you get on any vessel, you should be aware of emergency procedures. It’s always best to know how to use your marine VHF radio. But you should also show at least one other passenger or crew member how to use it as well, just in case.

Your VHF marine radio should have a digital selective calling function. This is a major part of the Global Emergency Distress system. It transmits an emergency signal that alerts the Coast Guard. It also tells other boaters that a boat is in distress. All new VHF radios have this function, but not everyone knows how to use it. When correctly wired to a plotter, it transmits your position.

Digital Selective Calling DSC was designed to replace voice calls. It’s a more stable signal and there is no squelch. You need to have a Maritime Mobile Service Identity Number. It should be programmed into your DSC device. This lets Coast Guard and others know who you are, where you are, and when you sent a message. The signal it sends can go up to 25% further than traditional signals. DSC service is also faster. This is the best way to signal for help if you can use it.

When to Make a Mayday Call

Some boats doubt whether their emergency requires Coast Guard assistance. Send a distress call for any of the following;

  • Your vessel is taking on water
  • A serious collision with another vessel
  • A fire on board
  • Capsized boat
  • A medical emergency

Maydays are used for life threatening situations. If you feel you or someone else is in grave danger, call the Coast Guard.

How to Make a MayDay Call

The process of making a MayDay call is simple.

  • Turn on your VHF radio to Channel 16. That’s 156.8 MHz.
  • Hold down the transmitter button on your unit.
  • Repeat MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY. Say “This is vessel < insert the name of your boat here >”
  • Repeat this message clearly 3 times in a row.
  • Identify your boat for responders. Give a description of the vessel. Use a GPS device to provide your location with GPS coordinates if possible. Tell them how many people are on board and then explain your emergency.
  • When finished, say “over” to indicate the message is done. Take your finger off the transmitter button and wait.
  • Give responders about 30 to 60 seconds to reply. If you do not hear anything, repeat your message.

Bad weather or distance from shore can affect your signal. Sometimes you will not get a reply message right away. Keep at it. But also be aware that you may need to resort to alternate distress calls.

There are other ways to contact the US Coast Guard in an emergency. VHF radio is the best and more preferred method. But not all emergencies run smoothly, so let’s see what else is available.

Other Methods of Contacting the Coast Guard

There are a handful of ways you can call for help at sea. Which one you choose often depends on the nature of the emergency and what equipment you have access to.

You can call the Coast Guard with your cell phone if you are in range. The Coast Guard will accept but does not recommend this. Cell phones do not have the range of a VHF radio. It is harder for them to locate a cell caller. And communication is limited to the person on the phone, rather than a radio, which everyone can hear. However, if a mobile phone is your only option, use it.

Keep your cell phone in a plastic bag to prevent water damage. Many cell phone providers offer free emergency service connection even at sea. So long as you are in range. Call 911 and they can connect you with the Coast Guard. A direct number is not something you’re likely to look up in an emergency. Numbers don’t just change between east and west coasts, they change state to state.

How to Use a Distress Signal

Your radio may not work in every emergency. There are times when you will be in grave and imminent danger when it’s simply not an option. If you are boating in international waters, you may even be out of range of the Coast Guard. Something capable of accessing the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System is needed.

The GMDSS alerts search and rescue anywhere in the world. A signal is commonly sent to them through a beacon. Something like an emergency position indicating radio beacon, or EPIRB. These will transmit your signal on several radio frequencies. They will also use the global positioning system or GPS to help others find you.

Typically, an EPIRB is not used for minor difficulties. This kind of emergency beacon is used in a life threatening emergency. If your vessel is sinking or you have fallen overboard are two examples.

Your boat should always be equipped with visual distress signals. These will offer a distress alert to any boat in range. They may not be as wide reaching as a distress beacon but they still indicate a boat emergency. In a pinch, you can use your own body to signal for help.

  • Waving Arms: With no other options available, waving your arms is a valid distress call. Wave them back and forth above your head. This signals to other boats that you require assistance.
  • Flags: Code flags can also signal others for help. The International Signal for Distress needs two flags. It’s Code Flag ‘N’ (November) flown above Code Flag ‘C’ (Charlie). You can also fly the orange signal flag with a black square and black circle.
  • Sound Signals: Every boat should have at least one sound producing device on board. A horn or whistle in particular. The sound signal to indicate distress is 3 prolonged blasts, then 3 short, then 3 prolonged. In this case, a prolonged blast is 4 to 6 seconds in length. A short blast is one second.
  • Orange Smoke Flares: This signal device is either handheld or floating. When activated, it produces a cloud of orange smoke, indicating distress. This is visible during the day for some distance. Hold it as high as you can for the best visibility.
  • Red Signal Flares: This device can be used day or not. Point it straight up and fire. It produces red smoke and a red flare.
  • SOS Electric Signal Lights: These are for night use. When activated, it flashes the SOS signal. In a pinch, you can make your own with a flashlight. You can signal SOS with 3 short flashes, then 3 long flashes, then 3 short. It looks like this • • • – – – • • •

Non-Life Threatening Emergencies

If you need assistance but do not feel it’s life threatening, there are still options. A Pan-Pan call is your best bet when not in immediate danger. You can broadcast a pan-pan call and it will alert rescuers that you have a problem but no one’s life is in danger yet. This could be something like your engine failing. Rescuers can mobilize but it’s less urgent.

You can contact the Coast Guard and let them know it is a non-emergency call. They will still likely be able to help you coordinate a way to address your problem. That’s even if you don’t need their help at all. Typically, they are willing to connect you with your local marina. They can even contact friends and family if you need communications help.

The Coast Guard may also make a Marine Assistance Request Broadcast (MARB) for you. This is a general call to let other vessels know you may need assistance.

In these cases, you may get assistance offered by commercial companies. You are free to accept this help, but know that they may charge you a fee. Make sure you clearly understand any offer of assistance from other vessels. You need to be aware of things like:

  • Their towing capacity
  • Emergency equipment
  • Expected payment

Anyone who charges you a fee for a tow at sea must be licensed by the Coast Guard. Just because someone offers help does not mean their vessel or crew will be up to the task. Keep that in mind. They may arrive and discover their boat is not suited to help.

Do Not Make a False MayDay Call

We can’t stress this enough. You hear on the news about people making false 911 calls to the police. It costs a lot more for the Coast Guard to respond than it does for the cops. Responding to a fake MayDay can cost anywhere from $178,000 to close to $1 million. It’s a massive drain on resources and, worse, it diverts attention from real emergencies. The penalty for a false MayDay call is steep. It can be up to 6 years of jail time, plus a $250,000 fine, plus reimbursement for the cost.

If someone sends an emergency signal by accident, alert the Coast Guard immediately. You can contact them quickly on your maritime radio on VHF Channel 16, or by phone at (855) 406-USCG (8724).

The Bottom Line

No one wants an emergency situation, but they happen. Being prepared is key. Make sure everyone has a PFD. Everyone on the vessel should be familiar with safety procedures even before they come on board. They need life jackets that fit. They need to know where fire extinguishers are. They need to know what to do in the event of an emergency. They will be counting on you and you may need to count on them. Do your best to stay safe and have the right equipment on hand.