Boat Safety / April 15, 2021

Pan Pan – Do you know what this marine safety call means?

When it comes to boating, nothing trumps understanding how to manage a crisis and  knowing how and when to communicate for help using a marine safety call. We are all familiar with SOS & mayday terms, but do you know what a Pan Pan marine safety call means when to use it? The best form of communication on a boat is to have a VHF radio. It is a solid device that can be used to seek assistance from other boaters or from the Canadian Coast Guard.

 What is a VHF radio and what is the benefit?

A marine VHF set is a combined transmitter and receiver and operates on standard, international frequencies known as channels. Throughout North America Channel 16 (156.8 MHz) is the international calling and distress channel. A VHF radio has a power ranges between 1 and 25 watts, giving a range of up to about 60 nautical miles between antennas mounted on tall ships and hills, and 5 nautical miles  between antennas mounted on small boats at sea level.

As required by the Radio Communications Act, all VHF marine radio operators, must have a Restricted Operator Certificate (Maritime). The Canadian Power & Sail Squadrons (CPS) handle all of the training and testing for Industry Canada.

Boaters in Canada are required to get a operator’s license to use a VHF radio on a boat. As it is illegal to operate a marine VHF radio without a license.

The Maritime Radio course teaches emergency radio procedures and everyday operating techniques.  The course teaches:

  •  The uses of marine radios,
  • Choice of frequencies,
  • Operation,
  • Phonetic alphabet,
  • Procedural words and phrases,
  • Digital Selective Calling (DSC),
  • Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS).

Obtaining a VHF radio and learning how to use it, is one of the least expensive investments a boater can make to ensure safety and the ability to communicate in case of an emergency. A cell phone is not a good communication choice on a boat. A VHF radio is a necessary safety device on any boat.

The history of mayday and the marine safety call

Mayday is always used in three’s: mayday, mayday, mayday.  The term comes from the french term or venez m’aider “come help me” in French.  Frederick Stanley Mackford, a Senior Radio Officer at Croydon Airport in London, was tasked with creating an easily understood distress signal. At the time, the Croydon Airport most often communicated with the French Airport, Le Bourget so Stanley landed on Mayday, the phonetic equivalent to m’aider. The United States adopted Mayday as the official radiotelegraph distress signal in 1927.  Mayday is acknowledged globally for distress calls.

 How to make a distress call

A Mayday call is warranted in cases of serious damage, life-threatening injury or illness of someone aboard or danger of losing the vessel.

 According to the Canadian Marine Transportation Division, in a life-threatening distress situation, select VHF Channel 16 or MF 2182 kHz. Repeat “MAYDAY” three times, then state:

  • The name of your vessel
  • Provide your exact position (having a GPS is another good decision) in degrees of latitude and longitude. If you don’t know your latitude/long coordinates you should provide an estimated distance and direction to an easily identified landmark or aid to navigation.
  • The nature of your distress
  • Your radio call sign
  • The number of persons on board
  • The assistance you need
  • If equipped with DSC equipment, you should precede the “MAYDAY” call with a DSC distress alert
  • Activate your 406 MHz EPIRB
  • Listen for a response and repeat the message until you receive an answer.

 When to use Pan Pan & Sécurité

This term is also adopted from the French; panne meaning “breakdown,” and  sécurité meaning “safety.” Pan Pan is another distress call but is used when there is no immediate danger to life or property.  Repeat “PAN PAN” three times instead of “Mayday.”  Use this for emergency events such as running out of gas, engine trouble, taking on water slowly, or non-life-threatening medical emergencies. Sécurité indicates a navigational safety concern such as an impending storm, debris in the water, or broken navigation lights.


Maritime Radio Courses:  Canadian and Power Sail Squadron

Additional Distress Signals:  Sound & Visual aids

Understanding the Canadian aids to navigation

Top 10 Safety Practices to Avoid Injury and Death While Boating


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