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How to Communicate a Boating Emergency While on the Water

Recreational boating is one of the great Florida pastimes. However, disaster can strike at any moment. Since a boating excursion can take you and your passengers far away from the safety of the shore, you must take extra precautions to ensure you can signal for help during an emergency if something goes awry. Our Florida boating accident attorney shares some tips on how you can best communicate a boating emergency while on the water.

Familiarize Yourself with Visual Distress Signals

The United States Coast Guard has a standardized set of universally recognized visual distress signals (VDS) boaters can use to let other boats in the vicinity know they are dealing with an emergency. The presence of such VDS is required on all recreational vehicles. However, we recommend double-checking that these are present on board before taking a boat out for a spin. We also suggest familiarizing yourself with these before leaving.

The most basic of these is the orange flag, which is the international symbol for distress on the water. When in trouble during the day, hoist an orange distress flag as high up on your vessel as possible—other boaters will be able to see your distress signal from miles away.

Another method of daytime emergency signaling is the orange smoke flare. These handheld devices emit a large cloud of orange smoke, which is easier to spot by day than the traditional red flare. When fired, the orange smoke will linger in the air, giving nearby boaters plenty of time to respond.

At night, the red flare is the more visible and therefore appropriate VDS. Red flares are very bright but will only burn for several seconds once launched, so use them sparingly. In addition to using a flare, electric signal lights can be used to display a bright, effective signal for an extended period. Before leaving on your trip, check that you have a bright light onboard your vessel and that it is working.  

These VDS can save your life. If you see another boat displaying these distress signals, always respond to their call for help.

Locate & Learn to Use Your Marine Radio

You might think that having your smartphone on you is protection enough, but cellular devices can be unreliable, especially in remote stretches of water. Having a marine radio as a backup ensures you always have a way to call for help.

Very high frequency (VHF) marine radios are monitored continuously by the Coast Guard. They have special channels that are reserved for emergency distress calls—Channel 16 is the most important.  

Another thing to do before taking a boat for a ride is to familiarize yourself with how to use the radio. Never use the emergency channel for any purpose other than a life-threatening emergency, however. Otherwise, you may be penalized.

How to Make a MAYDAY Call

If you are ever faced with a life-threatening emergency which on a boat, use your VHF radio to make a distress call on Channel 16. “MAYDAY” is the universal term reserved for distress calls, so if you’re in a panic and don’t know what else to say, this term will alert the Coast Guard that you are in trouble and require aid.

The proper procedure for issuing a MAYDAY call on Channel 16 is as follows:

  • Say, “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY,” three times
  • Say the name of your vessel three times
  • Recite the call letters of the boat once
  • Repeat, “MAYDAY,” and your vessel’s name
  • Name your location, or describe it as best you can
  • State the nature of your emergency (“man overboard,” etc.)
  • Report what kind of assistance you need
  • State how many people are on board
  • Describe any injuries sustained, if applicable
  • Describe the vessel and its seaworthiness
  • Wait for a response from the Coast Guard
  • If there is none, repeat the message until you hear back

Remembering the proper procedure when under pressure can be tough, so we recommend practicing it a few times before you leave.

If you or someone you love has been injured in a boating accident in Florida, The Pittman Firm, PA can help. Our Panama City personal injury attorney has decades of experience representing boat accident victims and helping them receive just compensation for their injuries. Call now.


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