How to Call Mayday When Kayaking or Canoeing

Icom M72 VHF radio ready for use on channel 16.

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:

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 Protocol:

  1. Mayday. Mayday. Mayday.
  2. This is [say vessel name 3 times].
  3. At Position [say location].
  4. State nature of emergency.
  5. Type of assistance needed.
  6. Number of people involved.
  7. Vessel name and description [2 times].
  8. OVER. Wait 10 sec. to 15 sec. repeat.
It’s important to practice this before you need to use it. During your next rescue training or paddling get-together, consider running through several Mayday scenarios.

Mayday Example

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.

how to call mayday example

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.


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  • This is very useful advice for paddlers. The example you give at the bottom of the May Day call makes it easier for people who read the post to understand what to do.

  • don’t you need a licence in order to operate on the GMDSS frequencies, there in the US/ Canada ?

    • For recreational users in the U.S., you don’t need a license. In Canada, you do. My understanding is that it’s a simple course in Canada.

  • Good stuff sir. Love my Icom M72 as well but I’ve had my eye on DJ’s’ floating model as well. Had to do a mayday once for a kayaker in the Apostles that we think had food poisoning and had become so dehydrated from fluid loss from both ends that he was becoming delusional and we feared kidney shutdown. The USCGS got there in a hurry but not before verifying my location at least six times. I think they may have had experience with people who had no clue about where they were. When I confirmed that I saw their boat coming around the north end of Basswood Island and offered to pop a flare, much to my disappointment they said it wasn’t necessary, that they had us. Very professional men and women. They got an IV in our guy and he was at Ashland hospital via Red Cliff dock in no time. All was well. Personal experience taught me that proper mayday protocol is a useful kayaking skill indeed.

    • Yikes! Glad he was okay, but how disappointing that you didn’t get to pop the flare. I still haven’t had the chance to pop one of those things.

  • The VHF radio is only useful if there is someone there to hear your call. Other emergency signaling devices are totally key in more remote locations, although the VHF is essential for rescue even if there maybe no one there to hear you’re mayday call. The incident in this link is an example of several devices working together to effect a rescue at sea. But if and just if the mayday wasn’t heard, the Rescue Center verified the PLB signal within less than 20 minutes of it’s activation. There are some pretty sophisticated new devices out there, PLBs with GPS and homing beacon all at once. Even in some remote parts of Coastal Alaska, there are quite a few commercial fishing vessels, and believe me they monitor channel 16 actively. Any sea paddler is slightly deranged not to get the license, take the course, whatever it takes, to carry a VHF.

    • Absolutely, Tom. I’ve covered PLBs here before, but maybe it’s time to revisit the subject in a new post.

  • Extending range is critical for portable VHF radios. Portable radios typically have flexible antennas and by their nature are very inefficient. Putting your radio on high power might only change your signal by 3 dB on transmit only (it does nothing to help your receive distance). Carrying a 1/2 wave extendable antenna that you can attach to your radio for long range communication can give you up to 10 dB gain (x10 in power) and works on receive as well as transmit! I have used VHF radios in field situations for most of my adult life life and I always carry one of these in my pack and it has made the difference between communicating or not many times. Try one of these when you are on the edge of your range and you will be astounded by the difference it makes. Try using them with a kayaker on each end and you will see quickly how effective this makes a pair of portable radios.
    Here is one place you can buy them and they come in models that fit all the standard connectors.
    As a skilled outdoorsman, kayaker, and radio engineer, I don’t leave home without one.

    • You’re link is broken, so I removed it. Do you have a link to a different example, because I’d like to see what you’re talking about? I’m skeptical if it doesn’t fit in the life vest for a mayday situation.

        Here is link again.

        google search for “super stick II 2 meter”
        this one made by smiley antennas there are others

        if you try it you will want to find a way to fit one in, it really matters when talking range and getting the message through. If you want it on your pfd you would have to be creative… I would experiment maybe with sewing a flexible sheath on your pfd somewhere… not much worse than having a river knife tucked in somewhere.

        for kayaking they might need to be in a dry pouch especially for sea water. I have used mine for white water usually with radio in dry bag.

        For hiking hunting I have carried one in pack for years and it has gotten wet. I use the rubber antenna until I need the long one. They have taken a beating getting bent up or loss of the tip but they still work. Field tested pretty tough. I got my brother to carry one as a law enforcement officer in rual areas and it allowed his portable to work where it would not at all with the rubber antenna.

        This is also an important item to use for search and rescue and wildland firefighters too. I have done both of those things as well in past times.

        A full size quarter wave VHF antenna needs to be 18 inches long to work well and quarter wave antennas require a ground plane to work against. All of that not possible with a rubber short antenna. By physics they are a big compromise. The extendable when extended is a half wave with matching network so it works as a “real” full size antenna. Also it does not need a ground plane thus it works well with a little radio because there is no ground plane to work against with the little radio.

        • The link worked that time. Interesting to think about. I’d need to try screwing it on and off on the water and in the water while trying to hold onto a kayak in big waves to really get a sense of how they work in that situation. I can see carrying one of these in the hatch.

      • A great test is to find a weak signal such as a far off NOAA weather station you can barely hear on your handheld. Take the rubber antenna off and put the extendable one on.

        That should be a pretty dramatic demonstration as to the increase of receive range.

        With radio it is all about the antenna not so much the power. So in a survival rescue you can likely use your radio on very low power over a long time period with that antenna and not eat up your battery.

        A .1 watt radio will work better with an extendable than a 5 watt radio with a rubber ducky antenna.

        If sending a blind mayday message and not getting a response change the antenna first!

  • For a lot more info try a google search for
    “High efficiency HT antennas”

  • Stay tied up to your kayak and paddle with quick release snaps. What is the price range on these radios? Great article.

  • Never mind about the prices. I see the links.

  • Can you comment about the SPOT device? I bought one before my first trip to the Apostle Islands, but really don’t know if it is much good. Also the annual fee ends up being a lot more expensive than the radio, and you have no feedback.

    • For an emergency, I’d prefer a PLB, such as the ACR Electronics SARLink 406 Personal Locator Beacon, because it operates specifically on a system designed for search and rescue. Once you activate a PLB, you know that a rescue will be launched.

      The interesting thing about a SPOT is that you can send home “I’m Okay” messages and track your progress on maps. That’s worthwhile if you have friends or family that are concerned about you. It does add an additional chore to the day and depending on how you view trips that might be a negative, especially if you place value on the difference between at-home life and life on the trail, and how you view courage.

      For the Apostle Islands, a VHF radio is a better buy, because the Apostles are well-used, busy and you’ll almost always get the park service if needed.

      • Thanks for the information. I am a solo paddler due to lack of kayaking friends, although I am always looking, and willing to pay to go in groups. The Apostle Island kayak rentals are strictly sea kayakers and require you to use their rental equipment and training. I will be using Red Cliff campground or Lodge in the future. I am 66, and have an overly concerned wife, so have to deal with her. I notice that ACR has other less expensive models that are highly rated on Amazon. My SPOT does not have the communication feature, but the new ones are preferable. Is there an annual fee with the ACR device?

        • I highly recommend training and sea kayaks for the Apostle Islands. It’s a dangerous environment, and there’s usually one kayaker fatality a year there.

          As far as annual fees with ACR, not all require one. If you’re just using the PLB feature, then there’s no fee. If you use the 406Link service then there’s a fee.

          • I have a 17 foot self bailing Sevylor Ocean inflatable kayak, and a Nomad SUP. I use a farmer john wetsuit for cold water. I like your articles on courage and simplicity. I have the courage to use what I have, until I can afford the boat, and training in a “sea kayak.” The oceans have been crossed by all sorts of small boats. I think you would enjoy Look under famous small boats. Lots of courage involved in the smallest boats to ever cross the oceans.

  • I’ll jump in on Spot. I like them a lot. My wife has used one for a couple years on her long motorcycle adventures. Last summer she rode to Alaska and back. Very nice to be able to check where she was at any time via the web. Also got an OK email each day. If there had been an emergency I would have gotten that email via my smart phone also. However the SPOT was plan A and plan B was VHF ham radio. She had the portable radio along pre-programmed with many repeaters and an extendable antenna. I’ll put a plug in for ham radio here too. Not too hard to get a technician license there is no morse code requirements now. Hundreds of mountaintop repeaters available for free in every state and there are small repeater directories published (a phone book of repeaters) that you can carry along.

    I will say VHF is not so good in river canyons even with repeaters available. When I did my Grand Canyon Kayak trip in 2004 plan A was a satellite phone. Plan B was me with a low power tiny HF radio and a wire antenna. I used typically 7Mhz and 14 Mhz radio bands all morse code. The antenna consisted of a half wave dipole supported in the middle by a SD20 fishing pole. It takes a little time to set up but I was able to contact stations throughout the US any time I took the time to set it up. Since I was bouncing my signal off the ionosphere and back down I was able to reliably contact other radio ops from the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon which is quite a task from the bottom of a steep and deep gorge. There are several of these radios that are kits and typically they are designed to fit in an Altoids tin. There are many guys that carry these devices to the top of mountains and other hams get points for contacting them while they “radio activate” mountaintops around the world.

    Another system I have used from hunting camps is ham radio bridges to the internet again these are free. This allows me to use a HF ham radio and a laptop to send email. The speeds are very slow but extremely reliable. That system is used a lot by people who live on boats and travel around for months at a time. Of course your smart phone is great for that IF there is service where you are going.

    Generally the simplest system is the most reliable and the slowest to set up and use. No system is perfect. On a big expedition it is a good idea to have something modern like the SPOT or Sat phone and something simple like morse code HF and a wire as a back up. The simple morse radio requires no other outside system between you and another person and it works from anywhere on earth. That is my kind of back up!

    • I really appreciate your ideas. I am a retired psychiatric RN. I was a medic in the army. I am all about safety, emergency kits, and backups. Simplicity and sense of adventure are wonderful. Going solo, or in small groups is adventure enough for me. Simplicity is my back up plan. Too many people die and leave wives and family to grieve. People who don’t wear PFDs are the most common example. Also people who take little kids on a river, without proper training or equipment. I don’t think most kayakers or hikers take a map or compass, much less a GPS or signalling of any kind (except for a cell phone.) On the other side of the scale you have people who use SPOT for non emergencies. They waste emergency services and should be fined heavily.

  • Good article and also very good comments. I’d like to see another one on Pan-Pan!

  • QUESTION: What is recommended for River Rats like me? I’m guessing I’ll have trouble reaching the Coast Guard from the Green River in Utah! I’ve thought of a more powerful, waterproof 2-way. Thoughts and comments?

    • How is cell coverage (although that’s not really an emergency device)? You’re probably best off with a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) and a Sat phone if you can’t get cell service or PLB and cell phone if you get cell service.

    • HA! Saw your question to me Bryan and it made me snort! None. Zip. Not even if you climbed out of the canyon…you’d still be 50 miles or more from nowhere along some stretches!

  • As fun as kayaking may seem, there is always a dangerous side to every sport. Kudos to you for highlighting it all perfectly and giving the best mayday tips and advice that can be of help even on impossible situations! What if the paddler didn’t have a radio or he has one and it isn’t working? What can be done during that really stressful situation?

    • Try to get someone’s attention by launching a flare, blowing a whistle or horn. If you have a PLB, activate it. If none of that works, then you need to figure a way out yourself and that’s going to differ based on the situation. The key is prevention. Don’t get into the situation in the first place. Have you seen my ditch kit advice?

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