By usage and agreement, there are three levels of distress call: Mayday, Pan Pan and Securité.

Each type of call is meant to alert authorities and fellow sailors that a vessel and/or crew are in peril or facing danger. They take precedence, in order, over all other radio traffic.

And NEVER EVER be tempted to place a hoax distress call - EVER.

MAYDAY is derived from the French expression venez m'aider or 'come help me'. Although often used for a variety of problems, it appropriately refers to the immanent possibility of loss of the station (i.e. your boat) or of life. Fire on board? – certainly. Running out of fuel? - not really.

PAN PAN (pronounced 'pawn pawn')is derived from the French word panne meaning 'breakdown'. It signals that there is an urgent but not life-threatening situation on board. An example may be running out of fuel, or a medical problem that required attention either at dockside or via radio instructions.

SECURITĖ (pronounced 'say cure i tay') is derived from the French word for security or safety. It is the signal sent when transmitting navigation, meteorological or safety information. An example may be the discovery of a log floating in an entrance channel.

There is a very specific format for a distress call. Click here for a formatted Distress Call Form.

Print this form & tape it beside your radio. Review it with guests.


THIS IS ___________________________(Vessel name 3 times)

MAYDAY (followed by vessel name))

POSITION _________________________________________

NATURE OF DISTRESS ______________________________

AID REQUIRED _____________________________________




This the sail vessel DOLPHIN   sail vessel DOLPHIN   sail vessel DOLPHIN

MAYDAY sail vessel DOLPHIN

My position is:

four three degrees two nine decimal eight zero two minutes north

zero seven nine degrees four decimal nine zero two minutes west

We are holed and taking on water

We require immediate assistance

There are six souls on board; 4 adults, 2 children; all with pfd's, no injuries,

Vessel has blue hull, orange smoke on the water

Some things to keep in mind.

1.) Remain calm

2.) Mayday is repeated three times to ensure that it is heard accurately.

3.) It is vital to speak clearly, slowly.

4.) Split numbers for clarity, i.e. Four Three instead of 43 (Forty Three).

5.) If you know it, and you need it, be ready to use the phonetic alphabet to ensure clarity

6.) Hold the mic a few inches away from your mouth to reduce distortion

7.) RELEASE THE KEY after speaking (if not, you can't receive a reply).

8.) Stay calm - excited, rapid or yelled transmissions only get garbled making it even harder for the receiver to make out what you are saying.

Hoax Calls

As hard as it is to believe, there are people who will place fake or hoax MAYDAY calls. Aside from being profoundly dumb, it is a very serious thing to do. It mobilizes SAR crews who may get injured in the process of launching and conducting a totally unnecessary search in foul weather, it consumes huge amounts of money and it diverts resources from legitimate SAR activities. A hoax distress call in New Jersey is estimated to have cost in excess of $300,000. The Detroit River has been plagued with hoax calls.

Other than knowing that this is a wrong thing to do, its also important to know that authorities take these very very seriously. They will use all technical resources possible to find and prosecute those who make a hoax distress call. The penalties are significant and include jail sentences, heavy fines and likely restitution orders to repay the costs incurred.

Don't be tempted to do this. If  you know people who do this, report them. The life you save may be your own as you will want those SAR resources available to find you, not wasted on a wild goose chase.

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