Skysail Training

inc Mayday / SOLAS

MAYDAY and Distress Signals

Mayday Distress Call using GMDSS - Digital Selective Calling (DSC) VHF Radio

See for more details

Using DSC for Mayday enables an automatic transmission of both the Mayday signal and your present position, providing your DSC set is interfaced with a GPS.

Just lift or slide the safety latch and press the red Mayday DISTRESS button (far right in the photo above).  Some sets allow you to specify the type of distress eg 'Sinking'.

Wait about 15 seconds for a DSC acknowledgement from the Coastguard or a ship station.  On Ch16, on receipt of a DSC acknowledgement or after about 15 seconds, send a voice Distress call:

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday

This is ‘ YACHT NAME.................’,   spoken three times

Mayday – YACHT NAME and ‘MMSI* or call sign’, spoken once

My Position is…………….

Nature of Distress………………

Assistance required…………..

Number on board  (total crew + skipper)........

Other information


*  MMSI = Mobile Maritime Service Identity – 9 digit number assigned to the radio

If no DSC acknowledgement is received, and offer of assistance is accepted from another vessel, cancel the DSC alert to prevent it automatically retransmitting.

See here for a guide to VHF Radio Mayday Guide and DSC Procedures  VHF skills chart

Acknowledgement of a DSC distress alert

When a DSC controller receives a Distress alert it will sound an audible alarm. 

Immediately cease any transmission that may interfere with Distress traffic and continue a watch on CH16.  Acknowledgement of a DSC alert by use of DSC is made only by coast stations and vessels fitted with Class A or B DSC controllers.  There is no facility on a Class D controller to acknowledge a distress alert by DSC.  If there is no DSC acknowledgement after a short interval, acknowledge by voice on CH16:

9 digit MMSI of the vessel in distress, spoken three times
'This is' name of own vessel, spoken three times
Received Mayday
State the assistance you can give

Distress signals 

The following signals, used together or separately, indicate distress and need of assistance: 

  1. a signal sent by radio consisting of the spoken word "'Mayday";

  2. slowly and repeatedly raising and lowering arms outstretched to each side;

  3. a rocket parachute flare or a hand flare showing a red light;

  4. a smoke signal of orange-coloured smoke;

  5. a signal made by radio or by any other signalling method consisting of the group  . . . - - - . . . (SOS) in the Morse Code;

  6. a gun or explosive signal fired at intervals of a minute;

  7. a continuous sound with any fog-signalling apparatus;

  8. flames on the vessel (as from a burning tar barrel, oil barrel, etc.);

  9. rockets or shells, throwing red stars at short intervals;

  10. the International Code Signal of distress indicated by N and C flags;

  11. a signal consisting of a square flag having above or below it a ball or anything resembling a ball.

  12. a signal from an EPIRB or SART

What to do if you accidentally set off your EPIRB (from Duncan Wells, Westview Sailing)

The head man at the MCA SAR section told me that the international ruling on accidentally setting off EPIRBs came from the Admiralty List of Signals Volume 5 pages 47 and 48 and the reason that they want the EPIRB left on is so that they can positively identify this distress signal. This is in case another EPIRB alert has gone off, or goes off at the same time. So if you are within VHF range of the Coastguard, what VHF students will know as Area 1, you leave the EPIRB on and call the Coastguard. If you are out of range, even if you switch it off they are duty bound to investigate and to answer the Distress. So again, leave it on and use your VHF radio to contact any ship nearby and ask them to alert the Coastguard. The first part of the rescue will be the Coastguard asking a ship to divert to your position, so even if at first there is no ship in range, there very shortly will be. Once they have relayed the false alert on your behalf to the Coastguard and the Coastguard have made a positive identification you will be told to turn off the EPIRB. 

And if your radio is on the blink? A ship will be diverted to your position and you can tell them face to face. So leave the EPIRB switched on and do your best to contact the Coastguard remains the message for now, wherever you are. Even if you switch it off and do nothing you will find that a ship will be diverted to your position, so it is best to call on the VHF and let anyone nearby know that this was an accident and ask for them to relay your message to the Coastguard.

Safety of Life At Sea Convention - Life saving Signals

You should carry a copy of SOLAS Life Saving Signals on your boat.

Posted Thursday 15th November 2011