Bonjour, Class. We come now to Part Deux of our petite series on using your VHF marine radios. We are calling this one: Sacré bleu! . . . or, Ethel, I think we’ve hit a whale! So, who would like to ask the first question?
What’s with all this French talk? Why can’t you just stick with something American, like English?
Merci for asking. We are sprinkling this month’s column with a soupçon (or “soup can,” for you Americans) of French because, as it happens, all of the ways we declare an emergency over our marine radios are in French. And what’s more, we say them with a wink and a nod to French pronunciation. Mayday! Pan-Pan! Securite! Seelonce! They’re all French.
Here’s the pourquoi (or “for why): It all started back in 1923, when a chap named Frederick Stanley Mockford, a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London, was asked to come up with a word for distress that everyone would be able to understand. Since most of the flights were then between Croydon and Le Bourget Airport in Paris, he came up with the word, Mayday, which he doubtless spelled “M’aider,” because “venez m’aider” means “Come help me!” in French. So Mayday became the word for “I need help now!” for both flyers and boaters. Well, one French expression led to another, and pretty soon the whole buffet of marine emergencies was French. The reason we’ve kept them—and their pronunciation—over the years is probably half inertia and half the fact that their Frenchified pronunciation helps them stand out from the general gabble of English and therefore attract our attention. So that’s why we use Mayday, Pan-Pan (pahn-pahn), Securite (say-cure-i-tay) and Seelonce (the French pronunciation of silence).
How do you know which one to use?
Mayday trumps everything else and is used for life-threatening emergencies only. Here is what you say: 1. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! 2. This is (your boat name), (your boat name), (your boat name). 3. Mayday, this is ((your boat name). Our position is (your latitude and longitude, specifying true or magnetic, and adding any nearby landmarks or navigation aids). 4. We (the nature of your emergency). 5. We need (kind of help you need). 6. On board are (number of people and their injuries, if any). 7. Safety equipment on board. 8. Present condition of the boat is . . . 9. (Brief description of your boat). 10. I will be listening on channel 16. 11. This is ((your boat name) over.
During a Mayday, everyone else needs to maintain stay off the radio—unless you determine you are the nearest boat (see next question)—until the emergency is over.
The next order of emergency is Pan-Pan, which is used to indicate a non-life-threatening but urgent situation. For example, you are recovering a man overboard or you have run out of fuel and are drifting toward shore. You can also use a Pan-Pan to get medical information for someone seriously ill or injured. A Pan-Pan broadcast goes like this: 1. Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan. 2. All stations (or the name of a particular vessel). 3. This is (your boat name said three times). 4. We (nature of emergency). 5. We need (specify type of assistance). 6. We are (location and description of your boat and number of people on board). 7. This is (your boat name) over.
Number three on the emergency scale is Securite, which is generally used to give important navigation or weather information. A report of a hazard to navigation, for example, or an approaching squall will be announced with a Securite. Often the announcement comes from the Coast Guard, but it can come from boaters. Securite is also used to make announcements of events—like canoe races and fireworks—that will temporarily limit navigation. These are usually given on the Coast Guard working channel 22A following the Securite announcement on channel 16.
What if you hear a Mayday call?
If you hear a Mayday, write down the information about the boat’s name, location and emergency and determine whether you are close enough to help. Wait for the Coast Guard to respond. If neither the Coast Guard nor any other boat responds, broadcast a Mayday Relay, giving the information from the original Mayday. If you are the closest boat, contact the distressed with your boat name and estimated arrival time. By the way, if you come upon a boat in distress, you are obligated to give as much assistance as you can. And don’t worry about your liability when you do, because you are protected by the Good Samaritan laws.
How do you send a DSC Mayday?
Excellent question. All marine radios sold after June 17, 1999, are equipped with Digital Selective Calling (DSC). When, connected with a GPS and programmed with the boat’s nine-digit Mobile Maritime Service Identifier (MMSI) number, a DSC marine radio will transmit the boat’s location and description to the Coast Guard (and all DSC-equipped boats in the area). You simply press the red distress button for five seconds and all that information is sent in the blink of an eye. If you don’t already have one, you can get an MMSI number free at either BoatUS (boatus.com) or SeaTow (seatow.com). You then program this into your boat’s radio. And don’t forget to wire your radio to a GPS. But doesn’t depend on the DSC Mayday alone. After sending your signal, use channel 16 to send a standard Mayday call as well.
Well, that’s our go-fast tour of the marine radio’s emergency system and its protocols. It may be old chapeau to many of you, but it’s information that bears repeating three times (just a little joke, there). For more details, check out any of several reliable sources, such as Chapman’s Piloting & Seamanship, Reeds or McEwen’s Boater’s Pocket Reference. There are plenty more.