When to Use “Mayday”, “Pan-Pan” or “Sécurité”

Tips for making distress calls on your VHF radio.

October 15, 2015
VHF radio

Fixed-Mount Marine VHFs

VHF radio Boating

Q. What are the differences between and when should I use “mayday,” “pan-pan” and “sécurité” on my VHF radio?

A. In order of priority, mayday is the internationally recognized distress call that is used as preface in VHF radio transmissions only in situations in which there is an immediate danger of loss of life or the vessel itself. This includes when a boat is sinking, there’s a fire in the engine room, or someone on board is unconscious or experiencing a serious injury or illness.

Pan-pan is the international urgency signal that is used as a preface to a VHF transmission when the safety of a person or the boat is in serious jeopardy but no immediate danger exists, but it could escalate into a mayday situation. For example, pan-pan is used in situations in which the boat has a slow leak or the engines are disabled and the boat is drifting toward a rocky shore.


Sécurité is a safety signal used as a preface to announce a navigation safety message. This may be an approaching storm, a navigation light failure, a submerged log in a harbor entrance or military gunnery practice in the area.

Nine Essentials of a Mayday Call
A mayday call on a VHF radio must consist of nine essential elements in order to be effective and help ensure a prompt response.

1. Who: You must identify yourself by boat name (and radio call sign if you were assigned one).


2. Where: State clearly your location as accurately as possible. This can be GPS coordinates (most important); landmass sightings; your distance to shore or a navigation aid such as a light or buoy; radar observations; your boat’s speed and heading; the elapsed time from a marina or harbor; and/or your last known position, all of which can help to quickly pinpoint your location and hasten rescue.

3. What: Explain the type of emergency you are experiencing (e.g., the boat is taking on water or is beginning to sink; a passenger is suffering a heart attack; there is a fire aboard).

4. Kind: State the nature of assistance you require (e.g., we need water pumps; a doctor or medic is needed; requesting immediate rescue).


5. Number: Give the number of souls on board and their condition, if hurt or injured.

6. Seaworthiness: Provide the condition of your boat (e.g., rising water in the bilge and pumps are not working; dead in the water; fire in the engine room; etc.).

7. Description: Describe your boat in detail (boat type, manufacturer, superstructure, color, striping, any distinguishing features or markings to help quickly identify your boat).


8. Schedule: Advise Coast Guard or rescuers of the times and channel you will be listening to on your radio (example: “I will be monitoring Channel 16 every 15 minutes on the quarter-hour”).

9. Stay Calm and Communicate Clearly: When making a mayday call on the VHF radio, it is important to remain calm and speak clearly. To be best understood it would be helpful to remember RSVP:

Your messages are more clearly conveyed when you speak with a naturally paced rhythm.

Talk a little slower than you would in a normal conversation.

Don’t shout! Talk at the same level as you would on the phone.

Speak at a pitch that is slightly elevated from what you would normally use in a casual conversation.

I have always been passionate about boating safety. With this in mind, I created the “Mayday Radio Guide,” which is a quick reference guide and a word-for-word script on how to properly make a mayday radio call. It is printed on an 8½-by-11-inch card sealed in heavy-gauge, nonglare plastic to help guide you on what to say and how to say it when an emergency arises.

The “Mayday Radio Guide” ($8.95) is available at many marine book, hardware and accessory stores and online at the United States Power Squadrons’ website ( under “ship’s store/safety.” Check out some of the Power Squadrons’ other boating safety items, publications and courses on its website as well.


More Gear