Equipped for distress


Press and hold the distress red button on your DSC VHF and it will transmit your distress alert every four minutes until another station acknowledges it; an EPIRB, once activated, will transmit for a minimum of 48 hours, alerting search and rescue services in the event of an emergency that you need help; fire a parachute flare and you have to cross your fingers, hope that someone is close enough, that they were looking in the right direction during the 40 seconds it will burn for, they see it, recognise it for what it is and dial 999 and ask for the Coastguard.

Thinking carefully about emergency distress alerting and locating equipment on board your vessel is always important. The RYA provides guidelines for skippers of pleasure craft under 13.7m in length on the types of emergency distress alerting and locating equipment they can choose to carry based on distance from the coast and GMDSS communications sea areas at www.rya.org.uk/go/safety.

Modern technology provides safer and more reliable options for distress alerting than pyrotechnic flares, and presuming such technology is carried aboard a pleasure vessel, the owner may now wish to consider reducing their complement of flares.

Electronic Visual Distress Signals (EVDS) are hand-held non-pyrotechnic devices that may be offered as alternatives to pyrotechnic flares. Whilst the cost, safety of use, ease of testing and disposal of these items might be attractive, EVDS should not be carried as a primary means of indicating distress (they are not currently listed as an internationally recognised distress signal in Annex IV of COLREG), however they do provide a non-pyrotechnic means of indicating where you are in the final mile when someone is looking for you.

The final mile

Simply telling someone you need help may however not be enough; they also need to be able to locate you. Search and Rescue (SAR) services, equipped with radar and specialist homing equipment, may not need anything further than the initial distress alert, but in many instances locating the vessel in need of help in the “final mile” can be challenging, especially if the rescuer is another small craft.

Traditionally a handheld red flare at night time or in poor visibility or an orange smoke by day has been the most effective solution for this “final mile” pinpointing of the vessel in distress. EVDS do now however provide a viable alternative.

Non-traditional flares

It is now possible for a pleasure vessel under 13.7m (which is not by law required to carry flares) to be equipped for distress alerting without carrying traditional pyrotechnic flares. An alerting device listed in COLREG such as EPIRB (ideally with GPS) or DSC marine radio set (correctly connected to the GPS) together with some form of EVDS for location in the final mile may well be an affordable, more reliable and suitable combination.

Marine Radio Distress Relay Protocol

Following consultation with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) and the Association of Marine Electronic and Radio Colleges (AMERC), the RYA has issued revised guidance regarding the procedure for sending a ‘Distress Relay’.

In a relay situation, there is no longer a requirement to send a DSC ‘Urgency Announcement’. The ‘Mayday Relay’ voice call remains unchanged and should still be transmitted as normal.

If a distress is received by DSC or voice, the skipper of a vessel should act as follows:

  1. Wait five minutes for the distress to be acknowledged by the Coastguard or another vessel.
  2. If no acknowledgement or distress working is heard, send a ‘Received Mayday’ voice call to the station in distress, then:
  3. Relay the distress message to the nearest Coastguard, which may be by any means, but should primarily be sent using a ‘Mayday Relay’ voice call addressed to the specific Coastguard station followed by repetition of the original ‘Mayday message’.
  4. The Coastguard should respond and take over distress working and co-ordinate the assistance.
  5. If unable to contact a Coastguard station, send a ‘Mayday Relay’ call, addressed to ‘All Stations’, followed by the repetition of the original ‘Mayday message’. You should then prepare to co-ordinate the assistance to the vessel in distress between yourself and any other vessels in the vicinity.

The same approach, starting at step 3, should be taken if you believe another vessel, aircraft, person or vehicle is in distress and unable to transmit its own distress signal.

Be prepared

If you have a VHF radio on board your boat, or carry a handheld VHF whilst out on the water, you need to hold an operator’s licence. The RYA Marine Radio Short Range Certificate (SRC) course is a one-day course aimed at anyone who wants to operate a marine VHF radio, with or without Digital Selective Calling (DSC).

Vital for days out boating, it covers radio functionality, how to relay information clearly and swiftly in an emergency situation, as well as hands-on practice of operating and talking over the radio. Supporting information, including the simplified distress relay protocol, can also be found in the RYA VHF Handbook (G31).

Find out more about RYA training courses at www.rya.org.uk/training, or visit www.rya.org.uk/shop to browse the full selection of RYA publications.

Get the RYA SafeTrx app

Whilst components of the GMDSS system remain the preferred means for communication and distress alerting, the RYA SafeTrx app is a useful backup and particularly helpful for those on the many small craft that do not have the ability to fit or carry standard GMDSS equipment.

The RYA SafeTrx app monitors your boat journeys and can alert emergency contacts should you fail to arrive on time. It is an app for both Android and Apple iOS smartphones that allows you to track your journey on your phone.

The app provides all recreational boat users, particularly dinghy cruisers, PWC users, RIB users, canoers, kayakers, wind and kite surfers and smaller boat users with an easily accessible and simple to use means that can inform HM Coastguard of their voyage plans and dynamic location in the event of distress. It does not replace GMDSS, EPIRB, PLB or AIS.

How it works

You can enter your journey details directly from your smartphone and plan a trip knowing that should you not arrive by the time given, a nominated emergency contact will be alerted and advised to initiate appropriate action. Where an emergency contact calls HM Coastguard about an overdue trip, the Coastguard will have access to your location and SafeTrx trip data through a secure standalone SafeTrx server.

Since RYA SafeTrx periodically sends your location data back to a dedicated server, HM Coastguard's response team can get help directly to you, and quickly.

Visit www.rya.org.uk/go/SafeTrx to start your journey today.

RYA members can find further information, knowledge and advice about safe boating at www.rya.org.uk/go/safety.