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Old 09-11-2022, 15:54   #1
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Mayday calls - where is that exactly?

I've been cruising for some years now on most of the great lakes and have heard my share of mayday calls. In almost all instances, I'm left wondering, where is that exactly?

The mayday call goes out during an emergency followed immediately by a lat/lon and then perhaps a range and bearing from some obscure inlet or island. I'm typically standing at the helm so I don't have a pencil and paper at the ready (fixable, i know), nor do I have total memory recall, most lat/lon keyboard entry into chart plotters are cumbersome and obscured deep in some sub menu.

It seems almost pointless. It's also frustrating because I want to respond if able but what to do? Here some things I think could be improved:

The coast guard sould make reference to larger cities or land marks and then fine tune the position relative the obscure inlet or island.

Clearly stating if it is in US or Canadian waters. Their radio calls have large over lapping coverage on the great lakes. Even what body of water, eg. Toronto radio covers the western end of lake Ontario and eastern lake Erie.

What if the coast guard would transmit an AIS target?

Another beef I have is their incessant request to have the distressed vessel relay their coordinates, yet again. I understand why; people under stress can't recite a long string of numbers with any accuracy. Why not get the vessel to activate the MMSI emergency button their radios? Then there's no human error involved and everybody gets the lat/lon of the distressed vessel electronically.

Also with reference to the incessant call for position read backs, I've advised my wife that if she's ever on the receiving end of these calls that's she's to respond WHEN ABLE. In an emergency the coast guard is working for you, not the other way around. Deal with developing emergencies first, then talk.

Rant off.
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Old 09-11-2022, 16:06   #2
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Re: Mayday calls - where is that exactly?

Generally I find it pretty easy to determine US vs Canada, as the communication style of the USCG and CCG are a bit different (even if you missed the name at the beginning). I agree that it's hit or miss on whether they give a useful landmark to help you quickly decide if you're close enough to pay further attention or not.
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Old 09-11-2022, 16:17   #3
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Re: Mayday calls - where is that exactly?

According to the Coastguard, most DSC emergency calls don't have position data attached, presumably because most radios with DSC calling don't have the radio hooked up to the chartplotter properly.
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Old 09-11-2022, 16:20   #4
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Re: Mayday calls - where is that exactly?

I believe that some of the newer VHF radios have the ability to playback the last received transmission. Maybe I'm wrong too!
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Old 09-11-2022, 16:51   #5
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Re: Mayday calls - where is that exactly?

When sailing in my local area I usually have a pretty good idea of my lat/lon because I make an effort to know. Also, my position doesn't change very much, or very fast, as I sail. If I'm keeping a log (which I don't always do when just pleasure sailing for a few hours, or on a short passage) then I at least know my recent gps position no more than 1 hour ago. My chartplotter shows my lat/lon on the bar at the top of the screen, my VHF shows it on the display, and the remote microphone at the helm also shows it.

As we all know I'm sure, 1 minute of latitude = 1 nautical mile. This very rough mental measuring tool should tell you fairly quickly how realistic it is for you to be of help. So, when I hear a Mayday hail on the VHF I listen carefully for the lat/lon and just try to remember, at minimum, the deg and min, and the time of the first call, and compare that with my own location. That is enough for me to determine whether I can be of immediate assistance and not hard to keep in my head for a short time until I've gotten the boat heading in roughly the right direction (if that's what I'm going to do). Once decision is made, and radio has probably repeated a couple of times the info of the mayday, I have had time to leave the helm, grab my notebook and pen which is always in a cubby just inside the companionway, and make some notes. This has only happened to me twice in my local area, and both times the CG responded long before I was able to assist, so I returned to my original course.

If sailing somewhere I am not familiar with then I'm for sure keeping a log so the details of the Mayday go in it as soon as possible. The steps for determining whether you can realistically be of assistance take a bit longer because you have to try and locate the vessel in distress on a chart or plotter, but you should still have a pretty good idea based on the lat/lon, your boat's best speed, weather, sea state, etc. Although I have heard mayday calls while at sea (only while coastal actually) they were never within reasonable distance to assist and other vessels plus CG responded.

VHF Mayday hail is certainly not a perfect system, but at least we try right?
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Old 09-11-2022, 17:55   #6
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Re: Mayday calls - where is that exactly?

In aviation there is a saying that the first priority in an emergency is to "fly the airplane;" ATC is doing their job by communicating but it is the pilot's job to determine when it is appropriate to devote time to communications.

It is my experience that most mayday calls originate from the clueless and involve non-emergencies. This leads to an awkward dance between strangers: Coast Guard duty desk following a procedure and their training, and clueless, frightened, overwhelmed individual trying to divide their limited skills between operating their boat, talking on the radio, and (usually) dealing with their wife.

I make it a point to keep a pad of paper aboard, and something to write with that isn't affected by water -- either a pencil or a space pen. I think it's worthwhile to take steps to make sure the VHF is easy to understand throughout the boat. Usually this requires adding an extra speaker or two.

The times I have assisted boats in distress have all involved observing their situation visually, not via radio. If circumstances called for it, I would not be afraid to ask the USCG to repeat the position of a vessel in distress if I thought I could assist, and to do so in whatever coordinate system makes sense at the time (river miles, bearing and distance from major landmarks, coordinates, etc.) They're the ones sitting at a desk with nothing to do besides be organized and coordinate stuff.
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Old 09-11-2022, 17:59   #7
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Re: Mayday calls - where is that exactly?

It is dead simple to stow a pad and pen in a coaming pocket or up under the dodger.

I've no idea how it is today in the US, but it would also be okay to go below , grab the ship's log, and call the CG for a repeat, so that you can log it.

Fwiw, it is a good idea, even when you are well offshore, but still within 50 n. mi. of the coast, to just note the headland you are approaching, and roughly how far from it you are. You'll remember the capes or points and their names for the time of the watch at least, and so be able to relate to a broadcast mentioning it. Even the bights and bays have names, so it shouldn't be hard to tell if you're near to a match. Moving around on long night watches also helps to keep you awake, should you happen to feel drowsy.

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Old 09-11-2022, 19:05   #8
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Re: Mayday calls - where is that exactly?

I'm on Lake St Clair, so I hear US & Canadian CG calls all the way from southern Lake Huron to Western Lake Erie. Generally, if I'm near enough to be any help, I'll recognize whatever landmark they are citing. My lat/long is always displayed at the helm. It's easy enough to look at the numbers as the CG makes a call. It's also easy to ask them to repeat the numbers.

Last season, we were involved in 2 searches and observed a couple other incidents. Each time, it was a USCG alert on VHF that alerted us. One of those times was a missing person, within about 100 meters of our coordinates. Not a good feeling.
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Old 09-11-2022, 20:39   #9
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Re: Mayday calls - where is that exactly?

What an odd rant. I can't imagine not knowing my general lat/long. I mean, surely you have a general sense of your position... no? It's not like we're moving that fast a sailors, so surely you know your general coordinates? Beside, it's available constantly on all GPS/chart plotters. And even the most lackadaisical approach to logging would include jotting your position down occasionally.

If I hear a mayday, or mayday relay call from the CG, I'll perk up and listen carefully the first time through. If it's anywhere near close to my known position I'll grab a pencil and paper and make sure I get the full detail the second time through. Then I get to a chart, either digital or paper, to see how close I am.

Nothing wrong with giving other locational data. I'm pretty sure all CG mayday relays have included that info, but certainly should be there. Not really clear why it matters if it's Canadian or US CG, other than giving some locational info. In a distress situation, I'm sure most of us would ignore the invisible border if we were the best boat to lend assistance.

Activating the DSC distress call button (it's not an MMSI button) is an excellent idea, but it does require an active GPS connection. Not all radios will have this.
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Old 09-11-2022, 20:53   #10
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Re: Mayday calls - where is that exactly?

It's very frustrating here in the PNW to hear the Coast Guard spend a lot of time clearly repeating "United States Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound" three times then rush a garbled message with location information and nature of distress without repeating. I always hope that if I'm near the endangered vessel the signal will be stronger or that I'll recognize the place name they reference, but I can't be sure.
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Old 09-11-2022, 20:59   #11
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Re: Mayday calls - where is that exactly?

I'd whip out my phone and press the record icon, I do it sometimes with the weather reports.
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Old 09-11-2022, 22:01   #12
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Re: Mayday calls - where is that exactly?

What difference does it make if its the Canadian or US Coast Guard that is coordinating?

A pencil will write on GRP quite easily and rubs off afterwards. Occasionally we hear a report but if its 25 miles away, that could be 5 hours travel time, more if we had to battle tide and wind. A chart plotter at the wheel or tiller useful to give situation awareness. A bearing and distance from a known object even better if you are sailing in known waters.

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Old 09-11-2022, 23:28   #13
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Mayday calls - where is that exactly?

It should be pointed out under GMDSS the MRCC , ie coast guard radio station is the distress coordinator until the on scene command role is established.

Hence you donít attend a mayday unless tasked by mrcc if you feel the shore station has not responded you should simply attempt a mayday relay ( voice procedures only ). Only in the event you form the opinion that the mrcc cannot hear the distress would you attend . Even if you arrive on scene always check in with mrcc to determine if you are suitable to help and determine what rescue assets are being deployed.

Hence if you believe you can lend assistance contact the mrcc and let them do the thinking.

GMDSS works on relaying all Alerts in any sea areas to shore coordinators.

Maydays can be issued for many reasons including cold water MOB for instance
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Old 09-11-2022, 23:40   #14
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Re: Mayday calls - where is that exactly?

One factor to consider is that the boat-to-boat range of a VHF is around 20nm (up to 30nm if conditions are perfect).

Therefore, if you canít hear the boatís transmission (only the shore station), it is probably more than 20nm away.

Given it will take you somewhere between 2 and 4 hours sailing to get there, probably not a lot you can do, given there are other resources around that can respond a lot faster.

Things may be different if youíre in a more isolated area, of course.
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Old 09-11-2022, 23:46   #15
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Re: Mayday calls - where is that exactly?

Originally Posted by ChrisJHC View Post
One factor to consider is that the boat-to-boat range of a VHF is around 20nm (up to 30nm if conditions are perfect).

Therefore, if you canít hear the boatís transmission (only the shore station), it is probably more than 20nm away.
That was my first thought. If you can hear the boat directly, you have a general idea of the area.

As someone else mentioned leaving a phone or tablet near the helm and activating the record function is probably better than pencil and paper.
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