What to do in an emergency
How you call for help in an emergency at sea depends on your equipment and how far away your boat is from the coast. Find out how to make a distress call with the equipment you have on board and how it will be responded to.
Sending a distress alert using VHF radio when inshore
VHF radio is the minimum communication equipment that you should have on your boat. VHF operates within 30 nautical miles of the nearest point of land.
In an emergency, send a voice Mayday or Pan-Pan message on VHF channel 16 (frequency 156.8MHz).
Sending a voice Mayday or Pan-Pan message
If your situation is serious, for example someone's life is at risk, send a Mayday voice message. If it's urgent, but not life-threatening, for example your mast snaps, send a Pan-Pan message.
Never send an unnecessary or prank distress call.
Say slowly and clearly:
"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday"
"This is (name of vessel)" [spoken three times]
Your vessel's name, call sign and MMSI number [spoken once]
The nature of distress [for example, "the boat is sinking"]
Immediate assistance required
How many people are on board
Any other information
This voice Mayday message can be sent without using DSC.
Say slowly and clearly:
"Pan Pan, Pan Pan, Pan Pan"
Your MMSI number and your vessel's name [spoken three times]
The nature of the situation [for example, "rig failure"]
What you intend to do
Using a mobile phone off the coast in an emergency
If you are off the coast of the Bailiwick of Guernsey, Jersey or UK, you can dial 999/112 and ask for the coastguard.
Don't rely on a mobile phone at sea to alert the coastguard because the signal is very limited.
Firing a flare
In an emergency, you can fire either a:
- red rocket
- red parachute flare
- red hand-held flare
Don't rely on flares alone to raise an alert. Someone else has to report that they have seen your flare in order for you to get help.
Make sure you don't fire red rocket or parachute flares when there are helicopters or aircraft nearby.
How to send a distress alert when you are offshore
Having your emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) registered and activated means the coastguard has full details of your boat. EPIRB registration
You'll need additional equipment to send a distress alert when you are more than 30 nautical miles off the coast.
- send a voice Mayday or Pan-Pan message on medium frequency (MF) radio (2182KHz) or on high frequency radio (HF)
- use a satellite phone to call an Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC)
- dial 112 on a satellite phone to connect to the emergency services throughout Europe and some other parts of the world
- activate the distress button on an Inmarsat-C satellite communications device
- automatically or manually activate an emergency positioning radio indicating beacon (EPIRB) to send a distress alert via satellite
Keep your call sign and distress procedures near the radio.
How your distress call will be responded to
When a distress call is received by Coastguard, they will acknowledge it, respond and ask for further information on:
- what and where the incident is
- how many people are in trouble
- how much danger they are in
The coastguard will then decide how to respond to the distress alert, which might be sending lifeboats, search and rescue helicopters or coastguard rescue teams.
They will also contact any ships or boats near to the incident and ask them to assist if they can. When you receive help from the coastguard, they will guide you through the rescue process.
Guernsey Coastguard is also equipped to receive VHF DSC distress alerts and the Search and Rescue Co-ordinators are trained to international SAR standards.
If you receive a distress signal
You must respond to any distress signals that you see or hear and help anyone or any boat in distress as best you can. But only as long as you don't endanger your boat or crew.
Using a VHF radio with digital selective calling (DSC)
Digital Selective Calling
DSC is simply a tone signalling system, which operates on VHF Channel 70 and is similar to the tone dialling on your phone, but with the ability to include data such as the vessel's identification number, the purpose of the call, the vessel's position, and the channel for further voice communications. In other words, vessels can call each other direct by use of their MMSIs (rather like a telephone number) without bothering other vessels or shore stations unless of course it is a Distress/Urgency call. The present VHF radiotelephony system requires users to listen until someone speaks and to determine whether the call is for them more often than not, it won't be.
By pressing the red Distress Alert button on your VHF radio, you can send your boat's identity, your position and the nature of distress. The position given will be precise and the alert will be heard immediately by all DSC equipped vessels and shore stations within range. The distress message will be automatically repeated every 4 minutes until it is acknowledged either by a Coastguard rescue coordination centre or ship within radio range. If circumstances allow, the distressed vessel is required to follow up the alert with a Mayday voice message on Channel 16 to give further details and alert any non DSC equipped vessels in the vicinity.
A typical DSC distress alert is sent as follows:
- Press the red Distress button. The set will automatically switch to Ch 70.
- Press again for 5 seconds to transmit a basic distress alert with position and time. The set then reverts to Ch 16.
- If time permits, select the nature of the distress from the menu (eg Collision, Fire, Flooding) then press the Distress button for 5 seconds to send a full distress alert.
When a DSC distress acknowledgement has been received on your set, the vessel in distress should transmit a MAYDAY message by voice on Ch 16 including its MMSI.
Search and Rescue
Guernsey Harbours acts as the Coastguard for Bailiwick of Guernsey waters providing search and rescue co-ordination and maritime information through Guernsey Coastguard on VHF Channels 16 and 20. A continuous watch is kept on these Channels.
Guernsey Coastguard is also equipped to receive VHF DSC distress alerts and the Search and Rescue Co-ordinators are trained by the UK Coastguard using the SARIS search and rescue IT system.
Search and Rescue assets
The RNLI operates an all-weather Severn Class lifeboat from St Peter Port, Guernsey; an all-weather Trent Class lifeboat and an inshore lifeboat from Braye Harbour, Alderney. St John's Ambulance and Rescue Service operates a marine ambulance from St Peter Port along with two IRBs and cliff rescue service. A hyberbaric chamber is available at the Princess Elizabeth Hospital in Guernsey.
The Guernsey Lifeboat Station is one of only four in the Channel Islands. Operating for over 200 years, the crews of the Guernsey lifeboats have been honoured with several awards for gallantry. The Station has seen a variety of Lifeboats over the years and the current lifeboat is the Severn class 'Spirit of Guernsey'. The island has always been proud to support the Lifeboat Station and crews; in 1973 a special appeal raised a considerable sum towards the cost of the Arun Class 'Sir William Arnold'. Twenty years later an appeal was launched to raise £1 million to support the building of 'Spirit of Guernsey'. Thanks to the generosity of friends in Guernsey, Sark, Herm and further aﬁeld, the target was achieved within one year. The RNLI relies entirely on voluntary donations.
Channel Islands Air Search operates an Islander aircraft, call sign Air Search 1, which is continuously available for maritime search and is equipped with radar, visual search and FLIR.
CIAS is a voluntary organisation formed in 1980 for the primary purpose of assisting in the saving of lives at sea. It is a rapid response service, with comprehensive Search and limited Rescue capability. The Service's aircraft will operate under the direction of any of the recognised SAR authorities, and will work in close conjunction with lifeboats, helicopters or other vessels or aircraft. It provides a rapid response search capability in the 4,000 square miles of water surrounding the British Channel Islands and the adjacent French coast and is involved in 30 to 40 call outs each year. The aircraft has the capability to act as on-scene commander, if so tasked, communicating as required by aeronautical and marine VHF radio. Many of the crew are commercial pilots.
The French and UK Coastguard services also make their assets available for use in the Channel Islands area if requested.
Need to know
- Keep your boat registration details up to date. This information can be invaluable during search and rescue operations.
- Keep the Coastguard and your family informed of your boating plans and any changes to those plans.
- Always get an up-to-date weather forecast and plan your voyage carefully taking into account the tidal predictions, limitations of your vessel and your crew.
- Always wear a lifejacket.
- Avoid alcohol.
- Check your engine transmission, fuel and filters regularly.
- Register your EPIRBs and keep them secure.
- Ensure kill cords are in good condition, tested and always attached to the driver once underway.
- Keep flares secure and dispose of out-of-date flares with the Police.
- Carry suitable clothing for your journey
- Mobile telephones are no substitute for VHF, but please use them if the need arises and always call early.
- Passage reports and radio checks to Guernsey Coastguard on Channel 20, not 16 or 12.
- Do not go out in fog unless you are equipped with radar and know how to use it.
- You should also check for navigation dangers on an up-to-date chart and refer to a current Pilot and Almanac.
- Have a contingency plan available should things go wrong and know who to call when you need assistance.