How to Call for Help in a Boat Emergency

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With boating season right around the corner, it’s important that we refresh our boat safety knowledge. In this article, we will be discussing what to do in the event of an emergency on the water. A boat emergency can happen anywhere, anytime. Even minor difficulties can quickly develop into an emergency beyond your control. Accidents happen every day on the water, whether you experience engine trouble, a man goes overboard, or a storm has left your boat incapacitated. In these worst-case scenarios, the ability to summon help quickly can be the difference between life and death. We will cover the items that you should carry on board to help get assistance quickly. We will also discuss the correct use and timing of each piece of equipment.

Visual Distress Signals

Orange Distress Flas


All boaters should be able to signal for help, and visual distress signals are effective at getting attention from other boaters when needed the most. The United States Coast Guard has visual distress signals as a minimum equipment requirement for all recreational vessels. It is recommended that you have and know how to use visual distress signals in the event of a boating emergency. Always respond immediately to other boaters displaying a distress signal. The different types of visual distress signals are discussed below.

Day Distress Signals

There are a few different types of day distress signals—we will cover orange signal flag and orange smoke flares. The orange distress flag is an international symbol for distress on water. Placing an orange distress flag as high as possible on your vessel allows other boaters to see your call for help from miles away.

Hand-held orange smoke flares emit a large cloud of orange smoke and are more effective than the standard red flares for daytime use. The orange smoke lingers in the air, providing an extended period for other boaters to see your call for help. The smoke will eventually fade out, so it is crucial that you utilize this signal method of when you have a good chance of being spotted by incoming air or vessel traffic.

Night Distress Signals

Common and effective night-use distress signals are SOS electric signal lights and red signal flares. Electric signal lights are effective in that they can display bright signal lighting for an extended period. These electric lights can be affixed to your vessel in the same way that you would display an orange distress flag. When positioned correctly, an electric light signal can display a call for help for a timeframe that far exceeds that of any flare.

Electric Signal Light


The second and most commonly known night distress signal is the red flare. Red flares can be found in hand-held devices and in aerial devices that shoot a red flare up into the sky. The hand-held devices last for about 3 minutes and work best when rescue is nearby. Aerial red flares are sent up into the sky using a launching device and can be seen from a great distance. These aerial red flares will burn for about 6 seconds, alerting other boaters about your distress.

VHF Marine Radio

VHF marine radios have channels that are reserved for distress calls and are monitored continuously by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). VHF is an acronym for “very high frequency” and refers to the audio frequency range between 156 and 174 MHz. VHF marine radios are increasingly popular with boaters for good reasons.

  • They save lives and are easy to use
  • They are more effective for marine communications than CB radios or mobile phones
  • VHF radios have more consistent reception than mobile phones
  • No license is needed when used in recreational boats
  • They withstand rough weather
  • Boat-mounted radios are wired to the boat’s battery
  • The source of a VHF signal can be located so that you can be found even in fog

How to Operate a VHF Marine Radio

Channel 16 is a calling and distress channel, and it can be used to contact another boat or station. Channel 16 is used for emergency communication only. After the initial contact, the conversation should move to a non-emergency channel such as 68 or 69. Penalties exist for misuse of a radio, including improper use of VHF Channel 16, so do not use the emergency channel for any other purpose than a life-threatening emergency.

Issuing a MAYDAY Call

If you are faced with a life-threatening emergency, use your VHF marine radio to issue a MAYDAY call on Channel 16 (the distress channel). Be aware that the distance for sending and receiving messages is limited by the height of the antenna and the power of your VHF marine radio. Use the one-watt setting except in an emergency or if your signal is too weak to be received clearly. Here is how to issue a MAYDAY call on Channel 16 of your VHF radio:

VHF Radio


  1. Transmit “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY.”
  2. Say, “This is (name of boat three times, call letters once).”
  3. Repeat once more, “MAYDAY,” and your vessel’s name.
  4. Report your location.
  5. Report the nature of your emergency.
  6. Report the kind of assistance needed.
  7. Report the number of people on board and condition of any injured.
  8. Describe the vessel and its seaworthiness.
  9. Wait for a response. If there is none, repeat the message.

Mobile Phone

You should consider your cell phone as part of your standard boating gear. Keep a list of appropriate phone numbers on board. Just as you would on land, use your cell phone to call 911 or another water rescue authority in your area. Mobile telephones may be useful for contacting local law enforcement agencies. However, they have serious limitations and should not be used as a substitute for a VHF radio. Moreover, cell phones can have service limitations and should not be viewed as your primary device for contacting emergency help.

Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB)

Saved by the Beacon


An EPIRB or Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon is a distress beacon used by boaters and mariners to alert Search and Rescue forces that they are in distress. EPIRBs transmit a 406-MHz distress signal that contains a unique 15-digit identification number to a global satellite system. Search and Rescue personnel can pull up your beacon registration which tells them who the beacon belongs to as well as provides additional emergency contact information.

EPIRBs provide Search and Rescue forces with your location either via GPS data or via triangulation from the low earth-orbiting satellites. This positional data is provided to the Rescue Coordination Center closest to your location.

EPIRBs are typically installed on boats and can be operated automatically or manually after an incident. In most countries, EPIRBs are mandated to be used in all commercial shipping. However, EPIRBs are also used on yachts, boats, and other recreational vessels. Personal Location Beacons (PLB) are location devices that perform a function similar to an EPIRB.

Key Differences Between an EPIRB and a PLB

The ResQLink+ EPIRB by


The ResQLink+ EPIRB by

For boaters, an EPIRB is generally preferred over a PLB. EPIRBs once placed in the water will operate autonomously by self-activating and floating upright in a transmitting position. Because of their simplicity, it is easy to educate crew members on their operation. With bigger batteries for a longer transmission life, EPIRBs are essential for long-distance transits. They are specifically designed for that worst-case scenario of just you and the beacon in the water.

PLBs require more effort to operate, as they must be manually activated and be held out of the water to function properly even though they are water-proof. PLBs are however small enough to carry on, so they are well suited for single-handed boaters or crew members who are routinely out of the Captain’s sight. Ultimately, the best beacon to have is the beacon you have with you when you need it.

The United States Coast Guard requires all recreational vessels over 16 ft. in length to carry a combination of day and night visual signal devices for good reason—these devices can save your life! Be sure to equip your boat or recreational vessel with the proper mix of visual signal devices and carry extra too! Pay attention to the expiration date of your devices and store them in a dry compartment, so they will be ready if you ever need them. Remember, preparedness is the key to making sure that everyone safely returns after each boating trip.



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