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The first two words are unmistakable: May day. Someone is into a life-threatening situation. I go below deck to listen better. The voice of the person who is sending the message out transmits anxiety and fear. Maybe, the situation is getting worse fast. “May day May day” – again – ” my engine has shut down and it doesn’t start”.

I’m shocked. Do you send a Mayday message because your engine has shut down?

The following conversation is funny. The patience of the coastguard operator talking to the “castaway” is proverbial. At the end, after several troubles in communicating his position ( our hero didn’t want to talk of latitude and longitude), the coastguard sent a raft to provide moral support to the poor sailor who simply had run out of fuel.

That’s what happened to me last year. Unfortunately, not an isolated episode. Information about sea rescue operations provided by harbour authorities reveal that the improper use of Vhf and may day messages is rather relevant in percentage terms.

Sailors often are very confused about the use of distress, urgency and safety messages.

We have already seen how useful and necessary it is to observe bon-ton and basic rules when we use our Vhf radio. Now, let’s try to understand the differences between the various messages and when they must be used.

The Mayday message is the most serious one. It must be sent out by the captain or a person delegated by him only to signal an imminent danger of life threatening or boat sinking. No other reason justifies its use.

What’s the procedure? First of all, the sender must be calm, clear and short.

The right procedure is as follows:

May day – may day – may day” pronounced “Medè”

Here boat xxx”

Our position” (say latitude and longitude)

Then, the reason of the call and the number of passengers.

The message must be closed by repeating “May day” three times.

So, we repeat, a Mayday message can be sent out only to signal a life-threatening or a boat sinking emergency. Rescuers are required to save people but not to tow the boat.

The urgency signal is called Pan Pan. In these cases, there isn’t any risk to human life or boat but there is an urgent emergency, maybe because of a medical problem. In this case, the conversation must be open with the word “medical Pan Pan”. The procedure is the same than Mayday. So:

Pan pan – pan pan- pan pan”

Here boat XXX” followed by position and call reason.

Finally, the Securitè. This message is used to announce a navigation safety message. Most of the time, it’s sent by ground stations. For example, to signal a storm or warnings.

We,too, can send a securité message, for example if we are aware of a danger in sea, such as an adrift wreck, some trunks or containers or some sudden and unexpected weather conditions, such as sudden storms or winds.

The procedure is always the same. We’ll say the word “Securité” three times, followed by our position and call reason.

There are also some other solutions, especially to call for a rescue, such as the Dsc, Epirb or the very useful 1530 telephone number made available by coastguard.

Vhf radio, however, is the most popular tool used for emergency calls. This is why it’s important to use it properly. Channel 16 must be always free. Moreover, we must respect silence in the first three minutes of each half-hour.



  1. Hi

    Thank you for your article – I did read it with interest.

    However, I have one question. In your examples on how it should be done correct, you did not stricktly keep to the GMDSS protokoll. Yes – they are much better and no one would compaint, but when sending a Mayday it should be done different.

    Yours Sincerely
    Marc Focke

  2. Sorry,
    the may day protocol is incorrect.
    First of all you end it with “OVER” not with 3 times “MAY DAY”, that would not make any sense at all.
    Secondly after giving your ship name, you are supposed to give your call sign and MMSI.
    It is important to note, that in our times a May Day call should be proceeded by a DSC call.
    Sail safe

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