International Distress Signals and Safety At Sea

Channel 16:

Channel 16 is the international worldwide distress frequency. It can be heard all over the world on any VHF radio. You may hear May Day calls, Pan Pan calls and Sécurité calls, or some information from the coast guard over channel 16. You must be sure you’re not on channel 16 talking to your buddies or doing radio checks. This channel is not for that purpose, so don’t be that guy.

On busy weekends, you may hear something like please be advised channel 16 is not a hailing frequency. It is for emergency use only by the coast guard because the goal of channel 16 is to help people protect themselves and save lives. It’s important to mention that it is good to stay on channel 16 and listen to it to be aware of your surroundings. You may hear a mayday call, and maybe the coast guard never heard it, and that information could save someone’s life.

The first of three calls we’re going to talk about is sécurité.


These are the kind of calls that you will most likely be hearing from the coast guard and commercial vessels. In addition, you will likely hear information about maritime safety and security, hence the name sécurité. 

For example, 

1. When you hear a security call, maybe a cruise ship is leaving a port, notifying all the boaters in the area that there’s a cruise ship leaving a small port, giving them some room.

2. A submerged log, The coast guard will be notified of a submerged log in the middle of an inlet or busy waterway, and they will announce that there’s a submerged log in a certain area, and now you and the boats around you know to keep an eye out for this specific log.

3. Transmitting Weather Information

Maybe a commercial vessel far offshore is in the middle of some crazy weather and wants to notify via a sécurité call.

A sécurité call might sound something like

Sometimes on channel 16, you will hear a similar call that will redirect you over to channel 22 alpha so as not to crowd channel 16. They’ll give a short message and say head over to 22 alpha, and then you will hear the full message. Channel 22 alpha is designed for important maritime information frequently used by the coast guard.

To switch from channel 16 to channel 22 alpha, scroll up to 22a. It is spelled 22a, but it is pronounced 22 alpha.

Pan Pan call:

Its like little brother to the May Day call

The term Pan Pan comes from the french word the Pan, which means the breakdown. This call is specifically used when you are in an emergency, but it’s not life-threatening.

So some examples of when a Pan Pan call would be used are, 

if you have a bilge leak and you’re not taking on water fast enough so that you can’t handle it, maybe a crew member broke their arm. You’re requesting medical attention, but like mentioned, it’s not life-threatening, or maybe you have a mechanical failure, and you’re drifting, but once again not life-threatening.

A Pan Pan call is a kind of call that you might be making yourself, or you might hear a nearby vessel making, or you might hear one from the coast guard.

So let’s say you’re in a real-world situation, you are anchored on the reef, and the engine is not starting. It’s not life-threatening, but you need assistance. You can’t get anywhere, and you might want to make a pan-pan call, so to make a Pan Pan call, start by saying 

Pan Pan – Pan Pan – Pan Pan 

then you’re going to say, 

All stations – All stations – All stations

This will notify everyone around you that you want them to listen to you.

Then you’ll identify yourself, your boat name, 

ex: gale force, gale force, gale force.

Then your identification number, so on those center console boats, it’s going to be those little stickers on the bow of your boat,

ex: FL1234

The next thing is probably the most important is your location, so whether that’s your coordinates or you might say 

I’m 180 degrees, one mile off the sombrero key.

The last step is to tell them what’s wrong. For example, 

I have an engine failure and request a tow. 

This way, everybody knows in the area that maybe there’s a nearby vessel that hears you and they’re comfortable towing, maybe there’s a charter boat, and that captain has their towing endorsement, so it will be perfect for giving all of that information.

You might also hear the coast guard make a pan-pan call on behalf of another vessel. 

It could sound something like

if you would like to assist, please contact the coast guard on channel 16. If you’re in the area, and you hear that maybe like I said, you’re a charter captain, and you have your towing endorsement to help them, that would be generous.

Steps to make Pan Pan: 

1. Make sure your radio is on CHANNEL 16 

2. Press & hold the transmit button 


Pan Pan – Pan Pan – Pan Pan 

All Stations – All Stations – All Stations 

This is Vessel Name – Vessel Name – Vessel Name 

My location is… 

4. State nature of distress 

5. State the assistance you desire & any other additional helpful info 6. Release transmit button 

7. Wait 30 seconds – if there is no response, repeat steps 1 through 7 

May Day

May Day is a distress call used for immediate requests of assistance. I’m talking about life-threatening. If your boat is sinking and you’re jumping off the ship for life, there may be heart attacks or serious calls like this. Guys, do not mess around with mayday calls. 

False May Day calls are criminal offences. You will get fined, so definitely don’t do that.

Mayday is derived from the french word midday, which means help me.

If there is life in danger, the first thing you’re going to do is to start on channel 16. Next, you’re going to say, mayday three times.

You’re going to state your vessel name followed by your boat id number. The next thing you will do is state your position, so people know where you are located; that’s important. Following that, you will say what’s wrong, how you need help, and how many people you have on board. Any important information, such as our boat’s red hole is bright red. We have a white t-top, and we are a 32-foot center console. Maybe you’re a deck boat. You may have a blue bimini top give that information, especially for situations where you’re adrift, or you cannot run your boat, and people need to come and find you.

How to make MayDay: 

You will repeat that at intervals until you hear a response.  

Once you get a response, I would highly recommend focusing on repeating the location and repeating back correctly because if they can’t find you, that’s pretty serious.

 Unfortunately, there are chances we’re not heard. What if we never get a response? Our VHF radios are not designed to go far, 40 or 50 miles. They’re more short-range than that. So I highly recommend that you have another source to contact, such as a sat phone and an EPIRB, so if you’re not getting a response, you will do your MayDay call through a sat phone or whatever source you choose to use.

Continuous Sound Signal

Something like this or a permanently fixed air horn on your vessel. The thing with these is that they will run out. Also, if you hold this down for more than five or six seconds, they do ice up and stop working. 

so if you ever need to use this, don’t just blow it down until it’s empty. Go in short bursts but do it continuously, and also be careful to point it away from people as they are very loud.

So continuous sounding of any sound signal is considered to be an international distress signal.


An EPIRB is an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, which means it’s a beacon that broadcasts your location when you turn it on.

Click here to learn about how an EPIRB works in an emergency,

There are two types of EPIRB

Category One

Category Two

The category refers to the bracket that the EPIRB is mounted in.

Category One:

You can have the option for both automatic and manual turn-on.

It’s mounted on a white housing.

This gets mounted outside your boat somewhere so that if the boat sinks, this can float free. There’s a hydrostatic release inside. It doesn’t send off this false signal if it drops in one or two feet of water overboard. So they want to make sure that a boat is in distress before sending resources out to get you that way. If your boat submerges between 5 and 13 feet of water, the water pressure sets off the hydrostatic release, lets the cover pop off, and lets the EPIRB float to the surface.

Category Two:

This refers to a manual bracket. This would get mounted somewhere in the cockpit or the cabin, where you could quickly grab the EPIRB. If you’re in trouble or sinking, take this out of the bracket and turn it on yourself. When the EPIRB is out of the brackets, they’re the same between categories one and two. In both versions, if you take the EPIRB and throw it into the water, it will automatically activate, and you can also manually turn it on. So the category is referring to the bracket it’s mounted in.

Category 1 vs 2 Which will be best:

Even though category two is more common if you have a bigger vessel, definitely go for category one if you’re probably in the middle of something, if your boat is sinking, or if you’re doing something else on the boat. If you forget to activate the EPIRB, it’ll activate by itself. So that’s a great feature, and it’s like 90 or 100 dollars more between category one and category two, so it’s worth going for category one.

 McMurdo has been the first manufacturer to come out with an EPIRB with AIS built in, and AIS is an automatic identification system. And you may not be familiar with that, and Let’s discuss that in detail below,

EPIRB Registration:

Registering your EPIRB is important because each EPIRB has a unique identification code specific to that EPIRB. That code will give the information about your ship, the owner, the position you’re at, and possibly the nature of distress.

With registered EPIRB, it’s easy to find people very quickly, contacting family members and informing them that people are safe. But it can go bad when the input isn’t registered properly.

So it’s a must to register your EPIRB, link at

It’s also important to dispose of your EPIRB because it could cost the coast guard time and assets searching for an EPIRB that’s been activated where someone is not in trouble. That time we can save lives and look for other people with real problems.

PLB or Personal Locator Beacon:

This is the same as a full-size EPIRB. The difference between an EPIRB and PLB is an obvious difference in size, which translates into a smaller battery in PLB, meaning a shorter transmission time. Once you turn it on, most new PLB will transmit for at least 24 hours once activated, while a new modern EPIRB will transmit for a minimum of 48 hours once it’s activated, and again that’s just a function of battery size. Secondly, an EPIRB can automatically activate once this goes into the water. PLBs require two-step activation, and different manufacturers do that differently.

AIS Automatic Identification System:

It’s been used for quite some time on larger commercial vessels, and it’s becoming increasingly popular on smaller boats and passenger vessels.

AIS is a system to broadcast certain vessel information to any other vessels within a certain range, and it broadcasts things like your vessel name, speed heading, etc. Suppose you have AIS installed on your boat. You will be picking up any of that AIS information from other vessels or beacons transmitting in the area. That information will show up on your AIS screen, so an AIS beacon transmits a man overboard alarm when activated. So if you’re looking at your multi-function display, this will pop up on your screen as a man overboard alarm if you’re within range.

AIS Transponder

And also, if your crew or your passengers are wearing one of these and they fall overboard, you will get a notification that will pop right up on your screen with their exact location. It’ll even show their drift if they’ve been out there for a while, so you can go back and pick them up. It’s much faster than waiting for a PLB signal to go through satellites, going to the coast guard search and rescue, and waiting for a helicopter or a cutter to come back.

Some different options for AIS beacons are available. It’s a nice small compact unit that you can easily install inside a life jacket.


OLAS system, which stands for Overboard Location Alert System. This is a cool option if you don’t want to spend a ton of money on a PLB or AIS beacon. If you’re not going quite far offshore, you can even use the OLAS system on pets or items you’re worried about falling overboard and don’t want to lose. 

So OLAS works through Bluetooth, there’s a free app that you download on your smartphone or tablet, and you can link the float or the tag directly to that app. So if one of these goes out of range of Bluetooth, it will set up an alarm on your smartphone or tablet to let you know that somebody fell overboard.

There are two options to keep track of your crew with the OLAS system. There is a tag, a small watch that you can put on your wrist, or you can attach to a dog life jacket. So it’s like a piece of equipment you want to keep track of that you get an alarm that falls overboard, or there’s this float on which is not only an OLAS tag, but it also has a built-in flashlight and strobe light, so this can replace a life jacket light. OLAS can also be expanded with a guardian, an engine kill switch, or the extender, which can be used on larger boats up to 65 feet.


SART is a Search And Rescue Transponder. It is a self-contained, orange-coloured, waterproof device, and it’s intended for emergency use at sea.

These devices may be either radar SART or GPS-based AIS SART. The SART is used to locate a survival craft or distressed vessel by creating a series of dots on the rescuing ship’s radar display. It follows IMO SOLAS regulations and is built with a superior lithium battery that provides 96 hours in standby mode and 12 hours of operating life. 

As a safety device and part of GMDSS equipment, it should be checked at least every month for cracks and punctures, the battery date, the safety lock is in place, and the integrity seal is not broken. In addition, it comes with a device mount that extends the antenna to 1 meter or above, which then can be placed on a life raft or lifeboat, leading to a more extended range and easier rescue.

To test SART, we should switch to test mode, hold the SART to view the radar antenna and check the visual indicator, the audible beeper, and the radar display for concentric circles that should be displayed when the SART is on.

It will produce 12 dots shown on x-band radar that 12 dots are equally spaced by about 0.64 nautical miles. In case of need, a designated crew member must carry SART to the lifeboat or life raft.

Dye Pack 

The dye pack is useful again to help people see you from the air, so the life rafts are bright. But, still, they’re quite small if you put the dye pack in the water, and it does give you that much bigger of a shape that they can look for, so hopefully, you’re more easily seen if there are, you know, aircraft looking for you.


There are four types A B C, and D. Different countries and different sizes of boats have different requirements on how many of each flare you need. So consult and ensure that you’re up to date with the amount you need by law, and that’s the minimum required amount. Again, depending on where you’re cruising, you may want more of them and a better variety.

The other thing about flares is that they have an expiry, which changes from country to country. So consult your country’s requirements to ensure you’re up to date.

Type A Flare:

Type A flare is a Parachute flare. There’s a rocket that launches with a parachute. It goes up about 300 meters or a thousand feet before ejecting the flare. Then the flare burns underneath the parachute for about 60 seconds and is visible for about 30 nautical miles. That’s the good thing about Type A. They’re good for attracting attention and letting people know you’re in trouble because they can be seen from a long distance.

Type B Flare:

Type B, the multi-star. It’s handheld and hand-launched. You hold on to it and pull the cap at the bottom, and there’s a little string, and it launches two red balls that go up about 30 meters or 100 feet. They burn for about five to six seconds. So it’s nowhere as long as the parachute flare and certainly not as visible as the parachute flare.

Type C Flare:

Type C is a handheld flare. It burns right from the end, much like a roadside emergency flare. These are useful once you’ve used your A and B and called for help, or maybe you’ve used another method like a radio or something. The C and D that we’ll discuss next are useful for helping people locate you and pinpoint your location because you hold on to this while it burns. This one has a burn time

of 60 seconds.

If you’ve ever used one of those Emergency roadside flares, you’ll see that they drop burning bits of slag, and that’s the last thing you want to be doing is dropping burning bits of slag on your gel coat of your boat so if you are using any of these handheld flares make sure you hold them out over the water.

Type D Flare:

Type D is either buoyant or handheld. The buoyant one will last a bit longer with a burn time of three minutes of very thick heavy orange smoke, and certainly, from the air and surface vessels because it is such a big cloud of orange smoke.

And once again, once somebody’s out looking for you, you deploy these Type C and D.

Make sure you familiarize yourself with the flares instructions and know how to use them. It’s not just enough to have to buy and have them as you need them by law, and throw them in a box or a cupboard somewhere and never take a look at them. Know how to use them.

Distress Cloth:

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The distress cloth is commercially available. We can put it out on the front of the boat, and you tie it down, and it’s the ball and square on an orange background. The ball and square, the square, either a ball above or below, is also considered an international distress signal.

Waving Arms:

Waving arms up and down is an international distress signal. Make sure that people, I can’t do it here, make sure you wave your arms up and down very clearly. One of the textbooks said don’t do that around helicopters because it tells them to land. I think a pilot will know when it’s time to land, and he’s not going to land because somebody on deck is waving their arms, so it is considered an international distress signal.

To be waving your arms, make sure it’s obvious up above and down, so somebody knows that you are actually looking for help and not just waving at them as they go by.

Dot Dash:

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Three dots, three dashes, three dots again considered as an international signal for help, came around about the time of the titanic I don’t think it was used. Since then, they’ve come out with standardization SOS. Certainly, you can use that again with a flashlight, or if you’re in a life raft with a mirror, whatever do, dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot in any way that you want to send it is an internationally recognized distress signal.

Code Flag:

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One of the internationally recognized distress signals is the code flag November which is the letter N, over the code flag charlie, which is the letter C. So, N over C is considered an international distress signal.

These are some of the lists of international distress signals we were aware of and researched.

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