Willie Thomson is seen here, working on the family’s sailboat engine. Delaying a mayday call can have costly consequences. Photo supplied.

BOATING WITH BARB – Delaying a mayday call can have costly consequences

Barb Thomson

  • Jul. 21, 2021 12:00 a.m.

Barb Thomson

Special to The Record

You’ve tried everything you can think of doing and nothing has worked.

When is it time to pick up the radio and repeat those dreaded words: “Mayday Mayday Mayday”?

When the water in the boat is up to your knees or up to your hips? Or when you’ve run out of fuel? Bait? Potato chips?

It should be an easy question to answer. But surprisingly, apart from the calamitous, it’s not always clear. Boaters can delay and deny – “it isn’t that bad”… “this can’t be happening” – to avoid making the one call that makes their emergency all too real. At a 2019 boating conference, Susan Pickrell, regional supervisor Maritime Search and Rescue, explained how delaying a mayday call can use up time critical to your rescue. To the uncertain boater, she said “You can just call and talk to us” about what’s going on before the water is up to your ears.

Your dilemma may start with engine trouble while you’re fishing off Point Holmes. The boat is not in danger nor is your life. On the other hand, your vessel is adrift with you in it.

Serious problems, but not immediately life-threatening VHF radio calls are transmitted as “Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan.” This call alerts the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre (JRCC) in Victoria to the kind of trouble and help you need before it escalates to a mayday call. Also, like the mayday call, it lets other vessels monitoring Channel 16 in your area know what’s happening and that they may be called on to assist. No boater should be too proud or too embarrassed to call for help while there’s still time left for options.

There’s a chapter in Robin Knox-Johnston’s book, On Sailing, titled “Small Steps to Disaster,” that summarizes an official UK report analysis of near-and-fatal marine accidents. He quotes the report as stating, “No accident is the result of a single cause,” but a series of decisions and events that led to a fallback plan that failed. The lives of those aboard and the safety of the vessel is the responsibility of the skipper, who “must think through what needs to be done in the event of things going wrong.” Knox-Johnston, a hero in the pantheon of skippers, claimed another quote for himself: “Even the oldest, boldest and most weather-beaten sailor can get it wrong sometimes.”

Call for help while it’s still only wrong.

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