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Coastguard & Navigation

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.

Mayday message

Say slowly and clearly:

"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday"
"This is (name of vessel)" [spoken three times]
"Mayday"
Your vessel's name, call sign and MMSI number [spoken once]
Your position
The nature of distress [for example, "the boat is sinking"]
Immediate assistance required
How many people are on board
Any other information
"Over"

This voice Mayday message can be sent without using DSC.

Pan-Pan message

Say slowly and clearly:

"Pan Pan, Pan Pan, Pan Pan"
Your MMSI number and your vessel's name [spoken three times]
Your position
The nature of the situation [for example, "rig failure"]
What you intend to do
"Over"

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:

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.

You can:

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:

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.

Distress alerting

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:

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

St Peter Port lifeboat

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

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

pdf icon Coastguard CG66 Form [235kb]