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Sending Out a Mayday

Demanding conditions almost always teach the most important lessons regarding safety at sea, but it's simply human to forget these teachings over time.
I sailed in the Fastnet Race in 1979, the one where 15 sailors died and so many boats were damaged. I was among the lucky ones, sailing aboard a brand new Swan 57, but we too had problems and had to pull into an Irish port to fix some broken ring frames and shore up the resultant leaks. There were many lessons learned from that infamous event, and offshore sailing in general has become much safer for it. Unfortunately over time those lessons fade and we all slip back into a sense of complacency. It's worth revisiting what to do when a crisis situation overcomes your vessel if only to reinforce what needs to be done at a time when it's truly hard to think straight.

Many of my comments will appear obvious, but it's true that even the obvious things are hard to remember when you are overcome with panic. I have had my fair share of close scrapes since 1979 and I know how hard it is to think clearly with water lapping around your feet, so lesson number one for me has been to write all the important safety procedures down as a list and tape that list someplace handy. I recommend you do the same. On my boat, pages of information from how to read the boat name phonetically to the location of the bolt cutters are taped to the underside of my chart table lid where I can regularly see them, and where I know I can find the information in a crisis.

Many tragedies at sea can be averted with a little planning; that's basic seamanship, but we all, myself included, fall into habits where complacency becomes routine and we take shortcuts where we shouldn't. All of your safety procedures should be carefully thought out and practiced before you leave the dock, or if that's not possible, at least before the wind starts to blow. Know how to deploy your liferaft. Know how to set the storm jib and trysail and know where the sheeting points are for both sails. Write down each procedure step by step. It's the only way you are going to get the job done without forgetting anything, particularly if you have people on board that are unfamiliar with your boat. Before we discuss sending out a distress call, let's cover some of the basic dos and don'ts when the worst happens.

When disaster struck, staying with the boat worked well for these sailors in the 1985 edition of the Fastnet Race.
I grew up sailing on a small lake in South Africa and I can still remember my father's words as he pushed me off from the shore in our family dinghy. "Have fun," he would say, " and no matter what happens stay with the boat." It was good advice and holds perfectly true for all mariners no matter where they are sailing and what type of boat they have. Whatever happens, stay with the boat. One of the most important lessons learned from the Fastnet was that those sailors who stayed with the boat survived; many of those that took to the liferafts perished. The advice that really stuck with me was to always "step up into the liferaft." In other words, only when your yacht has sunk and you have no more options should the liferaft be considered.

Now, that's not to say that the liferaft shouldn't be deployed early. Indeed it should, but your boat has so much more to offer than the raft. It has food, communications equipment, and most important of all, a sailboat is much easier to spot in a stormy sea by would-be rescuers than a small raft bobbing among giant waves. So ‘stay with the boat' and ‘step up into the liferaft' are two important lessons. However, before you get to that point you need to call for help and this is where many sailors falter. Sending out a Mayday is not something any of us are used to doing.

When Blondie Hasler proposed the first single-handed transatlantic race he made his feelings about radio transmitters quite clear. "They should not be permitted," he said. "Calling for help would bring discredit upon the race. It seems, indeed, more seemly for an entrant to drown like a gentleman." I don't take such a harsh view, but I do think that many people call for help for trivial reasons thereby jeopardizing the chances that others have of getting rescued. Whatever your outlook on the situation, you need to know how to call for help in an emergency. While the majority of boats only have single-sideband and VHF radios on board, many yachts, especially those heading offshore into blue water are equipped with satellite communication equipment and they too need to be considered as part of your overall distress program. Let's start with the most basic: making a radio call.

"Don't try and memorize it what to say when it comes to a Mayday call. When you are panicked your mind will often go blank and chances are you will forget what to say."

The international Mayday distress call comes from the French term M'aidez, meaning "help me," and if you do not use the radio on a regular basis the responsibility and awkwardness of calling for help can weigh heavily. There is a procedure to follow and you should have it written down and handy. Don't try and memorize it. When you are panicked your mind will often go blank and chances are you will forget part of it. Prepare yourself by reading the text and then make your call. The hardest part will be remembering to speak calmly, clearly, and slowly. Here is the proper procedure:

1. Make sure that your radio is switched on.
2. Select the distress channel if it is not the default setting. Channel 16 on VHF, 2182 on the SSB.
3. Key the microphone and say "Mayday" three times, speaking slowly and clearly.
4. Pause and then say: "This is (your boat name), (your boat name), (your boat name)."
5. Give your call sign once (it should be written phonetically on your emergency sheet in case you forget it).
6. Then repeat "Mayday" once again, and end by giving your boat name.

You have now sent out the initial distress message. Assume that it has been heard. If your equipment is functional, it's highly likely that your distress call will be picked up by someone tuned to the emergency frequencies. You now need to give whoever might be listening more information.

7. Give your position in degrees and minutes of latitude and longitude.
8. Give the wind direction and speed (so that drift can be calculated).
9. Describe the distress (i.e. "We've collided with a freighter and are taking on water").
10. Estimate the current seaworthiness of your boat.
11. Give a brief description of the boat.
12. Note the number of people on board, if there are any injuries and of what nature.
13. Then say: "I will be listening on (and give your distress channel)."
14. End the message by saying "This is (and name your boat)."
15. Release the microphone key.

When in port or during calm conditions is the best time to take a thorough inventory of your ditch bag.
Now it's time to listen for a response. Remember that you cannot hear someone calling you if you still have the microphone keyed. Be patient. Someone will try and call you or maybe relay a message from another vessel that can hear you. If there is no response, repeat the call. In many cases someone can hear you, but often because of the confusion on board or because your vessel is in distress, you will not be able to hear them. Take heart, the airwaves do work.

It is best to send out your Mayday on the radio first, and then consider the other options you have on board. Most boats in distress are rescued by other mariners and these sailors will be monitoring the emergency frequencies. If you have time, send out your distress by other means. Telephones, both satellite and cellular are usually portable so throw them into your ditch bag where you can use them from the liferaft should it come to that, or on deck if the cabin is flooded. My boat has a Sat C unit on board and I have it programmed and ready for use as an emergency tool. I suggest you do the same if you have a unit on your boat. My Sat C is programmed to send out my latitude and longitude with every message and I actually have a file saved on my computer that has much of the information I need to transmit in an emergency. This includes the boat name, call sign, registration, EPIRB information, family contact information, and spaces where I can fill in wind speed and direction and what the emergency is. I also have a group of e-mail addresses of people I know who will respond appropriately should they ever receive my emergency e-mail. I also have a GSC (Global Satellite Communications) unit on my boat that serves as a backup GPS and a hand-held e-mail system. It's a bit cumbersome to type the e-mail messages, especially in an emergency, however, that too is tossed into the ditch bag for use on deck or in the liferaft.

Once you have sent the basic emergency messages from your navigation station, you can move to phase two and use your telephones. Occasional pockets of cellular service are found far offshore and a call may go through if you're in one of these areas. Better yet, if you are near land, dial 911 and give the operator the same information you already broadcasted over the radio. When you give your position, give it in degrees and minutes and also try and put it into layman's terms like, "we are 20 miles southwest of Cape Ann." The same procedure applies to satellite phones. Make sure that your grab bag has a lot of new spare batteries for all your electronic devices. If you have to abandon ship and have the electronics with you in the liferaft, you might as well be able to use them. The hand-held GSC is particularly useful because it gives you your position as well. Finally don't forget to activate your EPIRB, and don't forget to toss it into the liferaft in the event you are abandoning ship.

If the time ever comes to make a Mayday call, keep in mind that no matter the conditions, chances are that help will find you.

These days with all the relatively inexpensive modern electronics available, you are much more likely to be rescued should the worst ever happen. The beauty of some of these items is that they are portable and you can continue to use them in the liferaft long after your boat has sunk. Remember to keep the batteries charged, and fresh batteries in your ditch bag. Most of all, remember to write down all the emergency procedures and practice them. Some, like Mayday calls, you can practice in your head. Above all, trust the system. It does work. Almost all vessels out on the water have their radios tuned to an emergency frequency and they will respond quickly if it's possible for them to do so. The land-based rescue squads at the US Coast Guard are well-trained and ready to help. It's your responsibility to see that they get all the information they need to find and rescue you. Don't panic, and remember may father's advice; "no matter what happens, stay with the boat."

Brian Hancock is offline  
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