How to Issue a MAYDAY Distress Signal Properly

by | Tuesday, December 31, 2013 |

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) has established protocol for using the MAYDAY distress signal in times of maritime emergency. This includes the proper format for issuing a MAYDAY signal and the circumstances under which such a call is warranted.

Information to Provide When Issuing a MAYDAY Distress Signal

A distress call should be issued as swiftly and clearly as possible using VHF channel 16 or 2182 kHz HF. It should begin with the word MAYDAY spoken three times. The call then must provide authorities with the information necessary to conduct a rescue mission.

The call should include the following details:

  • the name of the vessel and person issuing the call;
  • the vessel’s location, given in latitude and longitude (you may also provide location based on a well-known geological point if you do not have access to a chart or GPS sources);
  • the nature of the problem (such as “run aground,” “taking on water,” and so on);
  • the type of assistance requested (such as “search and rescue for overboard passengers,” “evacuation of crew” and so on);
  • current condition of vessel (provide details on the seaworthiness of the vessel, such as “estimated two hours until full submersion”);
  • number of people aboard;
  • details on injuries or fatalities to crew and passengers;
  • description of the vessel (including length, mast, hull color, trim, cabin, power source and type);
  • a communication schedule (include your vessel’s radio frequency); and
  • emergency and survival equipment available to crew and passengers (including personal flotation devices and so on).

A sample call may sound something like:


This is Freedom Blue-Freedom Blue-Freedom Blue LA1232

Estimated five miles east of Port Isabel heading east

Fire aboard

Request evacuation and medical assistance

14 adults onboard

Two unconscious crew and severe burns on two other crew members

Estimated one hour before full evacuation necessary

Freedom Blue is a 65-foot fishing vessel. Grey hull, blue deck


You can repeat this call at frequent intervals until you receive a response. Stay close to the radio if safety permits. This way, you can respond to requests from the USCG or other responding units quickly.

Note that the VHF radio is intended for short-range communication. You may need to issue a MAYDAY distress signal using a satellite telephone or MF/HF marine radiotelephone.

What You Must Know About MAYDAY Distress Signals

The term MAYDAY may not be used in the following circumstances:

  • when your vessel is experiencing engine trouble;
  • a vessel has run out of fuel; or
  • a vessel is lost or has gone off course.

A MAYDAY distress signal is reserved for instances in which there is grave and imminent danger to those aboard. It serves as a request for immediate assistance. Incorrect or inappropriate use of the MAYDAY signal constitutes a violation of Federal Communications Commission regulations. All crew should be sufficiently trained in MAYDAY protocol to ensure safety aboard the commercial vessel and to prevent violation of FCC rules and regulations.

Learn more about commercial vessel safety by visiting our blog. Place an order for vessel logbooks – including regulation and engine logbooks – by calling (888) 468-3757.

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