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To Your Health: Know How to Call for Help at Sea

First published in Landings, July 2023

As we have written about in past issues of Landings, knowing what to do when disaster strikes aboard a vessel must be hardwired into not only the captain but everyone else on the boat. While the captain is legally responsible for the crew and the vessel, it is equally important that everybody aboard understand certain basic responses when something unexpected occurs, as it is sure to do eventually.

Among those is how to issue a proper Mayday call.

Once upon a time, before marine radio was widespread, ships at sea used Morse wireless telegraphy to signal distress. During the days of Morse code, S.O.S. was the recognized signal for distress:

-- .- -.-- -.. .- -.--.

The Morse system was used well into the 20th century, discontinued in this country only in 1995 and worldwide in 1999.

Today “Mayday” is the term used internationally signifying a call for help. It comes from the French “M’aidez,” meaning “Help me” but is spelled and pronounced as “Mayday.”

It came into use because airplane pilots in the early part of the 20th century had a hard time hearing the sound “S.O.S.” over the static of plane radios. A new distress signal had to be found. Frederick Stanley Mockford was the senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London in 1923; he was asked to come up with an easily heard call. The majority of air traffic at the time was between Croydon and Le Bourget Airport in Paris. Mockford heard French pilots using the term “M’aidez” which sounded to him like “Mayday.” Both English and French pilots were familiar with the sound, so Mockford suggested Mayday as the new distress signal for pilots.

Currently three U.S. government agencies, the Federal Communications Commission, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the U.S. Coast Guard, and two international organizations, the International Telecommunications Union and the International Maritime Organization have each established “marine radio watch keeping” regulations. Regulations on radio watch keeping exist for all boats carrying marine radios.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, any vessel equipped with a VHF marine radio must maintain a watch on channel 16 whenever the radio is not being used to communicate. VHF channel 16 is the International Distress, Safety and Calling channel.

Jason Philbrook at Navroc Marine Electronics in Rockland sees many lobstermen in his business. Those who fish primarily inshore tend to keep their communication equipment simple. “In closer to shore, a lobstering boat should have a VHF radio,” he wrote in an email. “The U.S. Coast Guard will ask but has not yet required it be connected to GPS or have internal GPS and be programmed with a MMSI (boat identification) number so distress calls will include position and identifying information.” Offshore lobster boats may have two VHF radios and a satellite phone.

Today’s marine radios come equipped with a red distress button under a cover that will send position and MMSI number to the Coast Guard, Philbrook said. The Coast Guard has a network of towers along the U.S. coast that will receive these messages. But mariners should be prepared to send a Mayday call on VHF Channel 16.

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