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VHF protocol for 'Distress' or 'Urgency'

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What is the issue?
The VHF radio is an important piece of safety equipment to have on board. It is vital to understand the correct procedures, so you get the help you need in times of danger and/or don’t potentially block a distress or urgency call from another vessel.

Why address this?
The use of common frequency allocations and proper marine communication procedures enhance your safety and that of other mariners. Knowing how to use the equipment and the correct procedures provides significant peace of mind for all of us who venture away from the dock.

How to address this?
Understanding when to make a Mayday Distress, or a Pan-Pan Urgency call, correctly operating the VHF radio, and communicating effectively in an emergency situation is critically important. The below guidelines will help:


MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY (pronounced "MAY-DAY" and always spoken three times): This is the international 'distress' signal that is only used to indicate that the vessel is threatened by grave and imminent life-threatening distress and that immediate assistance is required.
PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN (pronounced "PAHN-PAHN" and always spoken three times): This is the 'urgency' signal and is used when the safety of the vessel or a person is at risk, but for the time being at least, does not pose an immediate danger to anyone's life or to the vessel itself. It says ‘a serious situation is developing, we need help but there isn’t a grave and imminent danger to the boat or anyone on board.’
Bottom Line If you feel your life is in jeopardy, call Mayday. If you need immediate assistance to deal with a serious situation that is not life-threatening, call Pan-Pan. A distress call of ‘Pan-Pan’ can be subsequently upgraded to a 'Mayday' call if the situation worsens and lives becomes endangered.

A VHF radio equipped with Digital Selective Calling (DSC) and the Automatic
Identification System

Photo: Courtesy of iCOM


If you have a DSC radio (digital radio with a distress button) the first action is to activate the red button. This sends a signal to the coastguard that you are in distress, and newer models will also send your position.

The next step is to make the verbal distress or urgency call. Channel 16 is the universal emergency channel, constantly monitored by coastguards and other nearby vessels. Transmissions on Channel 16 should only be used when absolutely necessary. If you hear a distress call, cease all transmission. Unless you are involved in the rescue or providing assistance, no one else is allowed to transmit on the frequency. You should, however, listen and follow the situation until it is evident that assistance is being provided. Normal transmissions may resume after the Rescue Coordinator has released the frequency to routine traffic "Silence Fini".


  • • Check main battery switch is on; switch radio on; turn up volume

  • • Adjust “squelch” control so noise just disappears.

If you have a DSC radio (digital radio with a distress button) do this first:

  • • Press DISTRESS button once, select distress designation (if possible)

  • • If no automatic GPS interface, follow the menu instructions and enter your current position manually (if you do not know present position leave the last position as displayed)

  • • Press DISTRESS button again AND HOLD for 5 seconds until acoustic alarm stops.

  • • Wait 15 seconds then continue as below.

Then for both DSC and non-DSC radios:

  • • Set the radio channel to 16 high power
  • • Press microphone and speak your 'Distress' or 'Urgency' message slowly and clearly:


      THIS IS...
      (name of vessel) 3 times

      MAYDAY... name of vessel, call sign & MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) number spoken once.

      MY POSITION IS... latitude & longitude, or true bearing from a known position. If not known then take a fix using the compass in the box or under the seat. If you do not know the position don’t guess, give your last known position or say ‘Position Unknown’

      I AM... status, overwhelmed on a lee shore, sinking, on fire, etc.


      I HAVE…
      number of persons onboard, any injuries and any other relevant information such as availability of liferaft.

      Intentions (eg aground and boat breaking up, crew wearing lifejacket and getting into the liferaft with handheld radio etc.)

      OVER – this means “reply to me” release the transmit button
      Keep listening on channel 16 for instructions


In a man overboard (MOB) situation it is also advisable for vessels with a DSC radio to hit the distress button so as to give the Coastguard the last known position. If there is an option to select MOB do that. Then recover the victim and then afterwards advise the Coastguard of your status.


In addition to Pan-Pan and Mayday, there is one final emergency communication that is used called 'Sécurité'. Sécurité (pronounced say-cure-i-tay) is a safety signal used as a preface to announce a navigation safety message. Sécurité warnings are normally transmitted by a Coastal Radio Station with the Sécurité call being made on Channel 16 and an alternative channel being chosen for the message itself. This may be a notification of an approaching storm, a navigation light failure, a submerged log in a harbour entrance or military gunnery practice in the area.

It is advisable to cut and paste the above details into a document infilling your vessel's appropriate phonetic alphabet spelling, ship's registry or MMSI Number details. Then print the customised version, laminate it and post it beside the VHF transmitter in case someone else needs to make the call.

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur, Yacht Obsession.

DSC distress using Icom and Standard Horizon VHF DSC Radio

Distress (Mayday) message by voice on a VHF DSC Radio

DSC Urgency Broadcast (PAN PAN)

Urgency alert (DSC) and Mayday relay message

Icom - How Digital Selective Calling (DSC) works

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