How to call for help in an emergency at sea

How you call for help in an emergency at sea depends on your equipment and how far away your boat is from the coast. Find out how to make a distress call with the equipment you have on board and how it will be responded to.

VHF radio 

A VHF radio will enable you to call for help by calling the coastguard and alerting other vessels. 

In an emergency, send a voice Mayday or Pan-Pan message.

Up until recently this was done with a mayday call on Channel 16. However, the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) has changed:

  • a ship or coast station no longer has to keep a manual watch on Channel 16
  • the UK Coastguard and Irish Coast Guard have ceased a dedicated Channel 16 headset watch and now monitor this through a wall-mounted loudspeaker

Please check with other countries if going abroad.

Instead, commercial ships and the coastguard now monitor a special digital channel with Digital Selective Calling (DSC) radios. To transmit a distress message on this channel you will need a DSC radio.

DSC radio

DSC VHF radios work just like normal VHF radios but with some added extras. They use a special channel (Channel 70) to send and receive information digitally.

When you register your DSC radio with OFCOM you will get an MMSI number for the radio - your ship's telephone number.

A DSC radio can send a distress message at the touch of a button. It simply broadcasts a programmed distress text message on Channel 70 to everyone in range.

This text message contains your MMSI number but can also include your position if you link your DSC radio to your GPS.

The text message will set off alarms on all nearby commercial ships, at the coastguard, and on any other vessel that has a DSC radio.

Sets receiving the call (and the transmitting set) re-tune to Channel 16 immediately.

On most DSC radios the button that sends the distress message is large and red – normally have to lift a cover and then press and hold it for a few seconds.

Sending a voice Mayday or Pan-Pan message

If your situation is serious, for example someone's life is at risk, send a Mayday voice message. If it's urgent, but not life-threatening, for example your mast snaps, send a Pan-Pan message.

Never send an unnecessary or prank distress call.

Mayday message

Say slowly and clearly:

“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday”
“This is (name of vessel)” [spoken three times]
Your vessel's name, call sign and MMSI number [spoken once]
Your position
The nature of distress [for example, “the boat is sinking”]
Immediate assistance required
How many people are on board
Any other information

This voice Mayday message can be sent without using DSC.

Pan-Pan message

Say slowly and clearly:

“Pan Pan, Pan Pan, Pan Pan”
Your MMSI number and your vessel's name [spoken three times]
Your position
The nature of the situation [for example, “rig failure”]
What you intend to do

Using a mobile phone in an emergency

If you are off the coast of the UK, you can dial 999/112 and ask for the coastguard.

But don't rely on a mobile phone at sea to alert the coastguard because:

  • the signal is very limited and there may be no coverage
  • you can only ring one number - with a radio, everyone hears your call for help (there could be a vessel a mile away that hears you on the radio and could reach you in minutes)
  • lifeboats and helicopters cannot home into the signal of a mobile phone - with a radio they can and will find you more quickly

Firing a flare

In an emergency, you can fire either a:

  • red rocket
  • red parachute flare
  • red hand-held flare

Don't rely on flares alone to raise an alert. Someone else has to report that they have seen your flare in order for you to get help.

Make sure you don't fire red rocket or parachute flares when there are helicopters or aircraft nearby.

How to send a distress alert when you are offshore

Having your emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) registered and activated means the coastguard has full details of your boat.

You'll need additional equipment to send a distress alert when you are more than 30 nautical miles off the UK coast. You can:

  • send a voice Mayday or Pan-Pan message on medium frequency (MF) radio (2182KHz) or on high frequency radio (HF)
  • use a satellite phone to call an Maritime and Coastguard Agency operation centre in the UK
  • dial 112 on a satellite phone to connect to the emergency services throughout Europe and some other parts of the world
  • activate the distress button on an Inmarsat-C satellite communications device
  • automatically or manually activate an emergency positioning radio indicating beacon (EPIRB) to send a distress alert via satellite to the nearest Maritime and Coastguard Agency operation centre
  • Maritime and Coastguard Agency operation centres
  • Radio communication equipment for pleasure craft

Keep your call sign and distress procedures near the radio.

How your distress call will be responded to

When a distress call is received by HM Coastguard, they will acknowledge it, respond and ask for further information on:

  • what and where the incident is
  • how many people are in trouble
  • how much danger they are in

The coastguard will then decide how to respond to the distress alert, which might be sending lifeboats, search and rescue helicopters or coastguard rescue teams.

They will also contact any ships or boats near to the incident and ask them to assist if they can. When you receive help from the coastguard, they will guide you through the rescue process.

HM Coastguard responds to search and rescue (SAR) incidents that occur within the UK SAR region. If you make a distress call outside of the UK SAR region, it will be responded to by that region's SAR authority.

If you receive a distress signal

You must respond to any distress signals that you see or hear and help anyone or any boat in distress as best you can. But only as long as you don't endanger your boat or crew.

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