“Mayday! Mayday! Help! Help! We’re sinking!”

It is the call no boater wants to ever have to make, nor hear!

This one went out off of the coast of North Carolina, a few months ago. Within minutes, Coast Guard personnel geared up and deployed, hearts racing, surf-pounding, copter blades whirring – in a dash to save what they believed to be several people from drowning.

The mayday was repeated several times over the next hour, as responders joined the USCG from a nearby Marine Corps Air Station, a salvage company, the local Sheriff’s office and two area fire-rescue departments.

And yet, despite all of that effort, the boat was never found. Not because it sunk, but because it was never in trouble. The call was a hoax. It was one of many the USCG gets, and is obligated to respond to every year.

The US Coast Guard makes over 200 responses to hoaxes or false distress calls every year. These hoax calls can cause the loss of millions of dollars annually, because emergency services must deploy automatically for searches after each mayday broadcast. This hurts everyone, not only by costing the taxpayers money, but more importantly, diverting the attention of valuable resources from a real emergency. Placing a false distress call to the USCG can result in fines up to $250,000 and/or 6 years in prison!

There have been a few dozen such fake calls in the past 18 months or so, many concentrated in the same areas, which has lead USCG officials to believe that they are likely being made by the same caller or callers. “We’re just getting more hoaxes every day,” says Lt. Gianfranco Palomba, who’s been heading a Coast Guard taskforce dedicated to stopping the calls. “We’re seeing a direct impact, not just on man-hours but on assets.”

Hoax Distress Calls Are on the Rise

The USCG, along with the Federal Communications Commission and other maritime agencies, is very concerned about the increasing number of search and rescue hoaxes.

While the USCG will never ignore a Mayday, when they receive a call, its investigative unit also swings into action to determine if it is a hoax or not, and build a case for later prosecution if necessary. That will involve phone calls, queries of other vessels in the area, and working with local law enforcement and civilians who report additional relevant information. The Coast Guard can track the source of marine band radio or cell phone signals, and is working on new technologies to better do so, that can not only help to verify the legitimacy of calls, nut can also help to identify the hoaxers, so more are prosecuted. It is part of a new effort known as the Search and Rescue Hoax Call Project.

Lt. Palomba and his team have also turned to something more exotic: voice recognition. The calls themselves give Coast Guard agents a clear sample of the subject’s voice, even if all they’re saying is “Mayday.” That might not be enough to find out who’s calling, and Palomba acknowledges it probably wouldn’t be enough to serve a search warrant — but it could be a way to match the same caller the next time they phone in a hoax, and confirm their suspicion that it is the same person, or persons that has been responsible for the rise in fake Maydays over the last few months. “Even in situations where someone has called in a hoax on 10 different occasions, that affected unit is still having to respond to them,” Palomba says.

In addition to putting responder’s lives at risk, fake mayday calls tie up resources, making them unavailable in the event of a real emergency. They’re also costly. A typical USCG rescue deployment costs anywhere from 10s to 100s of thousands of dollars.

As a responsible boater, you can help fight hoax calls. If you hear a distress call you know to be a hoax, or have information about someone who knowingly perpetrated such a hoax, call the nearest U.S. Coast Guard unit or contact the Federal Communications Commission.

How to Make a Legitimate Distress Call

Now that you understand the serious nature of making a false, or improper distress call, it is just as important that you understand how to make a legitimate one. From the high seas to the coastal rivers, a Marine band radio or VHF radio can contact the Coast Guard through channel 16, which is the International Hailing and Distress frequency. When not in use, always keep your radio tuned to channel 16.

The most important use of your VHF marine radio is to make a distress call if you are in trouble. There are three phrases, or “call signs,” you must know to properly signal an emergency. “Mayday,” “Pan-pan,” and “Securite.”

  • Mayday is used when you are in the most serious, or life threatening emergency.
  • Pan-pan is used when you are in trouble, but not immediate danger like you are adrift because you ran out of fuel, or you have a leak, but it is under control.
  • Securite (pronounced “secure-i-TAY”) is to give warning of a threat to navigation or an impending storm.

Proper use of your marine radio can save lives – improper use can cost them!


Before You Consider New or Upgraded Communications Gear

Your VHF radio is your best line of defense against disaster. It not only should never be abused, it should be properly maintained and upgraded as necessary.

Before considering the purchase of new, or upgrading to more sophisticated communications equipment, it is important to have all of the wiring, connections, and other components of your electrical system inspected. These may also need to be upgraded to be compatible with any new marine electronics.

Did you know that routine inspection and maintenance of your electrical system, communications and safety gear, is all part of our On Demand yachting solution?

That is only one advantage of being part of On Demand yachting. Members are aware of when any upgrades to any system from hydraulics to your engines, may be necessary, and you can be sure your yacht is always maintained for peak performance and the personal safety of you and your guests.



Operating a motor yacht can be costly. You can reduce your expenses, and avoid costly repairs by keeping her well maintained. On Demand yachting from FYM can help. If you would like to learn more, or if you have any questions or comments about this blog post, do not hesitate to contact our Yacht Management specialists, or call us at (954) 900-9968.