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.

Sending a distress alert using VHF radio when inshore

VHF radio is the minimum communication equipment that you should have on your boat. VHF operates within 30 nautical miles of the nearest point of land in the UK.

In an emergency, send a voice Mayday or Pan-Pan message on VHF channel 16 (frequency 156.8MHz).

Using a VHF radio with digital selective calling (DSC)

If you have DSC, send a distress alert by activating the distress button. All DSC-equipped boats and Maritime and Coastguard Agency operation centres in the area will automatically receive information about:

  • your vessel's identification number
  • the type of call (distress)
  • the channel you want to speak on (channel 16 is selected automatically)
  • your position

This alert will be repeated every four minutes until it's acknowledged. All Maritime and Coastguard Agency operation centres in the UK and most European coastguards are equipped with VHF DSC and will respond quickly if called.

Follow up the DSC alert with a voice Mayday or Pan-Pan message on channel 16. If you accept an offer of assistance from another boat, inform the coastguard and cancel the DSC alert to stop it transmitting.

To automatically send a precise position, make sure the DSC is connected to a Global Positioning System (GPS). Otherwise, you'll need to make regular manual position updates.

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 off the coast in an emergency

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

Don't rely on a mobile phone at sea to alert the coastguard because the signal is very limited.

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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