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Call of Duty: Signaling Your Distress June 9, 2022

Most pleasure boats, no matter the size, can be customized by adding a VHF radio onboard. These radios are not designed to play the latest hit songs, but to allow boat captains to monitor Channel 16. This is the channel used to signal if your boat is in distress (i.e. sinking or undergoing some other kind of drastic emergency). Captains also monitor Channel 16 so if an emergency occurs on some other boat, they can, if nearby, respond with help.

Using VHF Channel 16 is much better than relying on your cell phone.  You can be out of reach of signals for your phone–not good if an emergency happens–and your phone doesn’t signal to the authorities (like the Coast Guard) who and where you are.

But Channel 16 is not designed to be used for chatter between boats, broadcasting music or commentary, or asking if anyone knows a good pizza restaurant nearby. It is designed to be used only for serious emergency matters: navigation problems, weather warnings and those frantic emergency requests for help.

There are three basic categories of Channel 16 broadcast messages.

The first category is called sécurité (pronounced “sec-cur-i-tay).  You would broadcast a sécurité – sécurité – sécurité alert to warn other boaters of navigation hazards, sudden severe weather conditions or exceptional vessel maneuvers.

The second category is the Pan-Pan (pahn-pahn) alert. (The term is also derived from the French word panne, which means ‘breakdown.’) You would issue a Pan- Pan – Pan call on Channel 16 if your boat had significant operational problems and you are calling for other boats in the vicinity to stand by to offer assistance.  Pan-Pan messages are used when your boat is disabled, unable to navigate or maintain position,  there’s a slow-motion problem on board, or if someone has gone overboard but is in sight. The message, in effect, is I’ve got a problem here, but I think it’s under control. Stand by in case I need some help.

The final category of message is the well-known May Day. (Also derived from the French M’Aidez, which means ‘Help Me.’)  When you issue a May Day – May Day- May Day call on your radio, you are telling all boaters in the area that you are in serious trouble: your boat is sinking, on fire, people have gone overboard and are out of sight or other life threatening situations. 

When you issue a call for help on Channel 16, it is important to try and remain calm and speak slowly so all can understand your message. You need to give the name, location, size, make and color of your boat, state what the problem is, and tell the authorities listening how many passengers are onboard.

If you hear a May Day call on your VHF radio, you should write down the information, acknowledge that you heard the call (‘Copy that, Rumrunner’), determine where the boat is located and respond if you are close by. You should cease making any calls on Channel 16 and monitor the situation until an all-clear message has been sent. 

Most recently manufactured VHF radios come equipped with Digital Selective Calling (DSC) which enable you to make an automatic distress signal call. Usually, there is a special ‘Distress’ button installed which, when depressed and activated (listen for the beep) will automatically contact the Coast Guard and all other local boaters and provide them with the name, current GPS coordinates, and size and model of your boat.

If you have an older boat, you can retrofit your radio to install DSC calling. You will need to obtain a Maritime Mobile Service Identity number (MMSI), a unique nine-digit identifier for your vessel. You can get a MMSI at boatus.com or the US Power Squadron. 

Our service technicians here at Fay’s Boat Yard can also help you obtain and install DSC capability for your boat. 

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