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How to make a VHF radio Mayday call & Pan Pan call

When you need help, make sure you and your crew know exactly what to say when making a Mayday or distress call, says Andy Du Port

When making a Mayday call or Pan Pan call, always reads off the GPS position from the radio
When making a Mayday call or Pan Pan call, always reads off the GPS position from the radio

If you are in trouble and need help, you should follow the exact format for a MAYDAY call and PAN PAN call.

Andy Du Port head shot

Andy Du Port is a Yachtmaster Offshore, a former RN navigating officer and author of the Reeds VHF Handbook

Sadly, such calls are frequently made unnecessarily, which just wastes valuable search and rescue assets which could be more usefully employed, so make sure you fulfil the criteria for each:

Distress (MAYDAY call)

A vessel or person is in grave and imminent danger and requires immediate assistance.

A man overboard incident may warrant a Mayday call

A man overboard incident may warrant a Mayday call

Note the underlined words. ‘Grave’ implies a risk of serious injury, death or loss of the vessel; ‘Imminent’ and ‘Immediate’ are self-explanatory but equally important. If your situation doesn’t meet all these criteria, consider an Urgency call instead.

A man overboard (MOB) may well justify a Distress call but, whatever you may think, a dog overboard would not!

Urgency (PAN PAN call)

A vessel or station has a very urgent message concerning the safety of a ship or person.

This is just one step down from a Distress call, and your safety needs to be at risk.

Although you may not need immediate assistance, your situation must be serious enough to warrant a PAN PAN call.

If things deteriorate, you can always ‘upgrade’ to a MAYDAY call.

A format for a Mayday call and raising a DSC alert is useful near the radio

A format for a Mayday call and raising a DSC alert is useful near the radio

If none of the above applies, you can always make a routine call to the Coastguard or another station to alert them to your problem.

I am not for one moment saying that you should hesitate to make a Distress or Urgency call when necessary, just don’t abuse the system.

It is not uncommon to overhear Distress calls from yachts who are becalmed and have an engine failure, but are in no imminent danger or, in some cases, no danger at all.

Continues below…

Earlier this year, I heard a MAYDAY call from a small yacht which was drifting in calm conditions in Portsmouth Harbour just off Portchester Castle.

The Coastguard acted appropriately, as always, but I do hope the skipper was later given a thorough ‘debrief’.

As for an example of an unwarranted Urgency call, while leaving Studland Bay and heading for Poole on a calm summer’s afternoon a yacht was snagged by some fishing gear and put out a PAN PAN.

Engine failure on a calm day where you are not in immediate danger is unlikely to warrant a Pan Pan call. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Engine failure on a calm day where you are not in immediate danger is unlikely to warrant a Pan Pan call. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

She was in less than 10 metres of water and could have anchored to prevent her very slow drift to the east.

She was in no danger whatsoever.

It turned out that the skipper and crew were absorbed by the chartplotter and failed to see any of the fishing markers in the area.

She was later towed into Poole by a tourist boat.

Mayday Relay

If you hear a Mayday call and there is no obvious response, or if you detect someone in distress who is unable to put out a call, you are obliged to render assistance if possible.

A range and bearing from an easily-identifiable landmark helps others to locate your position

A range and bearing from an easily-identifiable landmark helps others to locate your position

However, in a yacht this will often be impracticable so you should send a MAYDAY RELAY instead.

There is no fixed format for this as it will depend on whether you are relaying an actual message or simply describing what you have seen.

However, your call should include:

MAYDAY RELAY
MAYDAY RELAY
MAYDAY RELAY

All stations, all stations, all stations

This is yacht Capella, Capella, Capella

MMSI 235 123 456

Received following MAYDAY from yacht Snowgoose:

(Repeat the message from Snowgoose or describe what you have seen)

If you are within VHF range of the Coastguard, call them instead of ‘All stations’. To avoid giving the impression that it is you who is in Distress, you should not send a DSC Alert before your voice call.

MAYDAY call and PAN PAN call formats

MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY

This is yacht Capella, Capella, Capella

Callsign Mike Alfa Bravo Six

MMSI 235 123 456

MAYDAY Capella

My position is 50° 40’·39 North 001° 40’·73 West.

My vessel is dismasted, without power and being set onto the Shingles Bank.

There are two adults on board.

I require immediate assistance.

Over.

PAN PAN PAN

All stations, all stations, all stations

This is yacht Capella, Capella, Capella

Callsign Mike Alfa Bravo Six

MMSI 235 123 456

My position is 50° 40’·39 North 001° 40’·73 West

My vessel has been dismasted and I am just making way under power in heavy seas.

I may require a tow into the Solent

Two adults and one child on board.

Over.

Notes:

  • The position above would be spoken as: ‘Five zero degrees, four zero decimal three nine minutes north; zero zero one degrees, four zero decimal seven three minutes west.’
  • If time is pressing, your callsign is not vital but your MMSI will help, particularly if you have already sent a DSC Alert.
  • Be careful to say your position carefully to avoid having to repeat it. If you can, also give a general position. In this case, it is about two and a half miles west of the Shambles.
  • The use of DSC is not covered in this article, but a Distress Alert or Urgency Announcement (‘Alert’ is only used for Distress) should be sent, if possible, before a voice transmission. Remember that an Urgency DSC Announcement does not include your position, but it will alert other stations in the area. You must therefore make a PAN PAN call by voice.

 


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