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"Is It An Emergency?" - How to Make the Right Call

By: Captain Bill Jennings

Here's how to classify any 'emergency' situation you may find yourself in, and how to make the right call to get help

If the amount of time you spend boating is the same as the average boater, chances are one day a situation will occur that will cause concern. When this invariably happens, it is important that you determine if you can resolve the problem yourself or if you need to call for help. If you decide that you need help, who should you call? And how should you do it?

Lets look at a common boating problem to understand the proper procedures you should follow in an emergency. Let's say you are cruising with friends on a sunny day and your motor quits. While passengers remain in their seats, you should check the obvious sources of the problem such as fuel flow and electrical malfunction. By checking for the obvious, you will determine if a problem can be fixed without help. It may be something simple, such as accidentally pulling your safety killswitch. But after checking for an obvious problem, you may also discover that the motor is as dead as a door nail and you need outside help.

You now have a choice of phoning your mechanical friend for technical advice, or calling a commercial towing service. Passing boaters may also be of help, and you can hail one down using the approved hand signal of moving your arms up and down at your side. You may also be close enough to shore to employ those mandatory paddles. What you need to remember is that you must not make a 'mayday' call to the Coast Guard if there is no danger to life or limb. If you make such a call, they will quickly determine that their help is not appropriate and advise you to drop an anchor and call someone else.

In a non-life threatening incident, such as this simple engine problem, there are two calls that you would be wise to make.

The first one is a pan call to Coast Guard to advise them of your dilemma, where you are located, and that you are attempting to handle it yourself. You should also add what channel you will be monitoring as well as your cell phone number, and tell them you will call to update the situation shortly.

The second call is to a friend or relative in order to give them the same information you gave to the Coast Guard.

Of course, our failed engine problem example might happen under more scary circumstances. This would include a problem such as a break down far from shore with a major storm approaching. Here, there is a real possibility of injury or loss to souls onboard. Once you ask yourself the question and decide that there is a real and present danger, it is time to make a mayday call. The word mayday, incidentally, is derived from the French word "m'aider" which means "help me," and it is now used internationally.

Remember that the Coast Guard is there to help you, so don't be intimidated or hesitate to call if you believe your circumstances require it. Use VHF channel 16 or a cell phone 911 to make your mayday call. A mayday is directed to all those who receive it and not just the Coast Guard, so by stating 'mayday' three times, you are putting out a general call to anyone listening, including Coast Guard. Remember, it is to your advantage to use VHF because your call will reach other boaters within a few miles and they might respond to help, too.

To help with your Mayday call, remember the following acronym that I came up with as a memory crutch:

Follow the W's -- Who, What, Where

You will need 3 Who's, 2 What's and 1 Where. Here is how to expand this when calling:

3 Who's

Who you are calling: Mayday Mayday Mayday (anyone listening)

Who is calling: Provide the name of your boat (e.g., Sea Traveller)

Who who are you: Boat description, souls on board. (eg. blue 28', 6 souls)

2 What's

What is the problem: Describe the emergency (eg. fire or sinking or illness)

What it is that you need: Equipment or personnel request (rescue, medic)

1 Where

Where you are located: (Coordinates, marker number, or nearby landmark)

Knowing when to call for kelp and who to call, is a boating basic. There is no shortage of possible problems while boating. No matter how much we mentally prepare ourselves for difficulties, nothing takes the place of actually practicing the correct response. That is exactly why the law requires cruise boat operators to conduct a life jacket safety drill prior to every sea cruise. Take my advice and stage some onboard safety drills, keeping them as real as possible. It is the best way to prepare for that day when an incident does occur.

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