When to make a Mayday or a Pan Pan call.
Being able to keep a calm head in the most extreme situation at sea will save lives.
Correctly operating your VHF radio, and understanding when to make a Mayday call or a Pan-Pan call, is absolutely fundamental to this.
Good radio etiquette and using the right channels and protocols is also critical in ensuring the effective management of all marine traffic, however busy the water.
Even if you are not going far offshore and have a mobile phone on board - thinking that if the worst happened you would be able to call the coastguard or a friend to get help - there is no guarantee you will have reception. Wet mobiles generally don’t work very well either, and who knows what conditions you may find yourself in?
A radio is an important piece of safety equipment to have on board and it is vital to understand the correct procedures, so you don’t potentially block a Mayday distress call from another vessel and you can help maintain good on-the-water order.
In fact it is a legal requirement to have a license to use a VHF radio, and the Short Range Certificate (SRC) is the minimum qualification required by law to operate a VHF and VHF Digital Selective Calling (DSC) equipment on any British flagged vessel voluntarily fitted with a radio. This includes both fixed and hand held equipment.
Mayday is the international signal to notify life-threatening distress.
A Mayday call is only to be used in the case of “grave and imminent danger to a vessel or persons, such as fire, sinking, man overboard etc.” So serious is a Mayday call considered to be that in many countries now anyone making a false Mayday call could be prosecuted under criminal law. It is solely intended to save lives.
All new VHF sets are either fitted, or can be interfaced, with DSC allowing calls to specific vessels. If you hold the ‘old’ VHF licence (pre-1999) you need to upgrade your qualification if you purchase new equipment.
There are two parts to a Mayday call – the distress signal and distress message.
In the distress signal stage, the DSC or red button on your VHF is king. It is the first signal to the coastguard that you are in distress, but newer models will send your location via GPS too.
Part two is the instantly recognisable ‘Mayday Mayday Mayday’ verbal call.
Channel 16 is the universal emergency channel, constantly monitored by coastguards and other nearby vessels. It is the point you shout for help and everyone in the area will hear you rather than just the one person you try to contact by phone.
The distress message procedure involves detailing the name of your boat, your call sign and Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) - a nine-digit registered number further helps identify your boat – your position, the nature of your distress and the number of people on board. You should also request immediate assistance.
When identifying your position it doesn’t have to be by chart position or GPS, in fact, unless you are out in an open channel miles from anywhere, a location by name (for example Carrick Roads), or in relation to a fixed point is often better as boats in the locality will know immediately you are in their vicinity without having to reference it.
Because calmness can make all the difference in a life-threatening situation, and there is a lot of information to remember, keeping a readily available Mayday Cockpit Card near your VHF DSC radio is recommended. This acts as a prompt to both the distress signal and distress message procedures as well as having somewhere to note your MMSI, call sign and vessel name so they are to hand.
Top tip – if you know the phonetic alphabet use it!
Maybe you’ve broken down and have been left floating aimlessly, or have suffered significant structural damage to your boat that means its progress has been severely impeded. Maybe someone on board has been taken ill but their condition is not immediately life threatening. These are the kinds of incidents to use a Pan-Pan call.
Repeating Pan-Pan three times says ‘it’s serious, we need help but there isn’t a grave and imminent danger to the boat or anyone on board.’
For Urgency calls a (a Pan-Pan call) the red button should not be activated but it is still broadcast over channel 16 on high power. Nevertheless much of the information you would provide in a Mayday you should still provide in a Pan-Pan situation, namely boat name, call sign, MMSI, location and the nature of your distress.
However whereas for a Mayday you would request immediate assistance, for a Pan-Pan you would state your intended action.
Mayday and Pan-Pan are at the extreme end of when good VHF understanding and procedural knowledge are paramount. But a situation doesn’t have to be critical for your radio communications to make all the difference to your safety at sea.
The RYA’s Marine Radio Short Range Certificate (SRC) course complies with European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) requirements and is accepted internationally as recognition of certified VHF proficiency.
It is suitable for anyone who owns a fixed or handheld marine VHF radio although to sit the final certificate exam candidates must be 16 or over.
The course covers the basics of radio operation, the correct frequencies (channels) to be used, distress, emergency and medical assistance procedures, making ship to shore telephone calls, Digital Selective Calling (DSC), Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB) and Search and Rescue (SART). It is taught and examined using radio simulators.
In the final practical exam, candidates are assessed in the four areas of Distress Situations, Urgency Situations, Safety Situations and Routine Communication. There is also a short (up to 30 minutes) closed book theory assessment exam paper.
There have been two recent changes to the RYA’s Marine Radio (SRC) course. Firstly candidates now have two options for their study – i) traditional classroom delivery at an RYA Recognised SRC Training Centre or ii) a new online e-course.
Secondly, the final exam is now carried out by an assessor who was not involved in the tuition, previously, the SRC assessor used to do both the tuition and the exam.
The beauty of e-courses is you can study when and where you like at your own pace. Its interactivity and graphics also make it a fun, engaging and effective way to learn.
This online SRC course provides background information on the types of radios available, the different users, and basic technical information about how radios work before enabling you to get to grips with transmitting messages using the course’s interactive radio while learning the language to use when communicating over radio
You get plenty of practice sending stress, urgency, safety and routine calls to become familiar and confident with various procedures. Plus you are in the privacy of your own home so no one can hear you talking to your computer!
The course’s pre-exam knowledge check is designed to assess if you are ready for the final exam or would benefit from spending more time on e-course. The RYA VHF Handbook is referred to many times for further reading or reminders in the course, and the handbook is included in the course price. An eBook is also available.
Find out more about SRC and the value of VHF