Hopefully, when canoeing or kayaking you’ll never get yourself into a situation where you need to call for outside help, but if you do find yourself there, you need to know how to call Mayday. A Mayday call is an internationally recognized distress signal used to signal a life-threatening emergency that, if heard, should trigger a rescue. Before you learn how to call for Mayday, you need to learn about VHF radios and if you don’t own one, you need to budget for one, because they are one of the items that any coastal kayaker and many canoeists should own.
What is a VHF Radio?
A marine VHF radio is a two-way radio used for ship-to-ship and ship-to-land communication and for getting emergency assistance. It operates on frequencies between 156 to 174 MHz. For kayaking, you want a waterproof, handheld VHF Radio that preferably fits inside your life vest or ditch kit. Here are a few recommended choices from kayaking professionals:
- Icom IC-M72 Waterproof VHF Marine Radio – I’ve owned this radio for a number of years. It has seen lots of upside down time and it’s still going strong. The buttons are big and easy to hit with gloves on. Here’s a cheat sheet for the M72 that I made.
- Icom IC-M34 VHF Waterproof Marine Two-Way Radio – This one floats! Used by David H. Johnston of PaddlingInstructor.com.
- HX751 6W Floating VHF – Used by Dunks of Solent Sea Kayaking.
- HX850s Handheld VHF w/GPS – Jill Ellis of Adanac Paddles recommends this model.
How to Use a VHF Radio
We’ve covered How to Use A VHF Radio before, but a few notes are needed before we cover how to call Mayday.
First, you should make your emergency Mayday call on VHF channel 16. Channel 16 is known as a hailing frequency and is used to establish contact between vessels before you move your conversation to another channel. During a Mayday call, you’ll likely remain on 16 during the entire process unless the Coast Guard decide to move your call to an other channel.
Second, many handheld radios have different power levels, you’ll want to make your mayday call on the highest power level to gain the most range. Even at the highest range, you’ll only get a maximum of 5 miles in good conditions. So, if there are no boats or towers within that distance there’s a good chance to nobody will hear you. At the highest power levels batteries can drain quickly, which is a good reason to always charge your unit before heading out.
Third, calling Mayday doesn’t mean that you will be rescued. There are many things that could happen during a rescue attempt. You should have all the means and skills necessary to rescue yourself or survive prolonged exposure.
Fourth, only call Mayday if you find yourself in a situation that you can’t get safely out of and your life is in danger and without outside help you’ll likely die.
Fifth, to use a VHF radio to call, you need to push and hold the “Push to Talk” button. Before doing this, listen to the channel to make sure that no one is currently calling on the channel, because if you talk at the same time, you might not be heard. After you push and hold the button, wait a second before talking. If you talk right away something might get cut off.
How to Call Mayday
Because a Mayday call is only used in life-threatening emergency, don’t use it for other emergencies. If there is no threat to life or vessel then call a Pan Pan instead. When calling a Mayday, remain calm, because a calm voice is more likely to be understood than a panicked voice. During your call, relay only the important information and keep the message simple. Repeat the Mayday call until someone answers the call. To call a mayday follow the mayday protocol below.
- Mayday. Mayday. Mayday.
- This is [say vessel name 3 times].
- At Position [say location].
- State nature of emergency.
- Type of assistance needed.
- Number of people involved.
- Vessel name and description [2 times].
- OVER. Wait 10 sec. to 15 sec. repeat.
So, let’s say that you’re taking a day trip on Lake Superior to the Susie Islands and a storm rolls in and kicks up big waves because of the day’s opposing lake currents they become violent and steep. Instead of taking the portage around Pigeon Point, you make the bad decision to swing offshore and try to round Pigeon Point to get into the safety of Pigeon Bay. The sea of egg-carton-looking reflecting waves from the point tosses you and your buddy out of your kayaks and the kayaks get away. Since the water is cold at 50 degrees Fahrenheit and you’re only wearing hydroskin and Farmer John wetsuits, you decide to get help and call a Mayday. Look at the map below to find your position, which is about 1/2 of a nautical mile off of Pigeon Point. Your bearing to Pigeon Point is approximately 270 degrees.
Here’s what your Mayday call is going to sound like. Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. This is Kayaker, Kayaker, Kayaker. At approximately 1/2 mile off of Pigeon Point with a 270 degree bearing. We have lost our kayaks and are in the water. Need immediate rescue. Two people. Two kayaks, one red and one yellow. This is Kayaker. Over.
If no one answers you, call again in 10 to 15 seconds.