By Vincent Pica
District Commodore, First District, Southern Region (D1SR)
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

There is a natural tendency to shy away from the unfamiliar, especially when you can’t get the words back. Remember the first time you were faced with a phone answering machine: “leave your message after the beep” – BEEP! Now what? Even today, that beep can strike fear into the hearts of some. Now, how about multiplying that a hundred-fold to everyone tuned to channel 16…?

Some Basics

Unless you know the cell phone number of every boater in your vicinity, your only source of help is your VHF radio. You don’t have one, you say?  Stop reading and check yourself in someplace because that is simply nutty. Your radio is likely to be your only source of help and you go to sea without one?  Over a couple hundred dollars?  And West Marine, for one, will give you a three-year warranty in the price… Come on, Bunky, where else can we skimp with such potentially disastrous results?

So, let’s assume we all have a radio, even if only a 5 watt handheld, aboard.  Calls fall into three categories and if you use the introduction properly, you will save essential time with U.S. Coast Guard Forces. Tune it to VHF channel 16 and leave it there.

Imminent Loss of Life Aboard

The all-familiar “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!” is the ultimate. It means “I need help right now. There is imminent risk to lives aboard my vessel.” (Emanating from the sinking of the Titanic, it comes from the French for “Help me!”  “M’aide”.)  Would you use it if there wasn’t imminent threat to lives? No.  What then do I use?

Someone to Watch Over Me

“Pan-pan, pan-pan, pan-pan” (said “pahn”) is the introduction to indicate that a high level of concern exists and advice, at a minimum, is needed. You’re taking on water but you have it generally under control, but you wisely want the USCG to keep an eye on you… Or you are coming in during a heavy storm, are struggling but maintaining steerage, but want the USCG to keep an eye on you… Don’t be bashful. Get on that radio and have someone watch over you.

Someone to Look Out for Me

“Security, security, security” (often said with the French pronunciation: “secure-a-tay”). You are coming into the inlet at night, can’t see anybody but are worried, as you should be, that there is somebody there… You’re coming back from Montauk during a foggy day and you are on the rhumbline from the Montauk sea buoy towards the Moriches sea buoy. Someone going from Moriches to Montauk will be on a reciprocal course to yours – in the fog. Put out the security call!

All of these introductions, which immediately establish the level of the issue, are repeated three times, per above.

Now What Do I Say?
What you say next will save time, and possibly save your life. Identify yourself (the name of the boat – if you don’t have one, make something up right then “motor vessel Charlie”) and, most importantly, the nature of your distress and where you are! For example: “Pahn-pahn, pahn-pahn, pahn-pahn, this is the motor vessel Charlie. We are taking on water and are 10 miles due south of Moriches Inlet. Over.” When the USCG hears that, they will come right back to you. (If they don’t within, say, a minute, hail them again.) Note that I finished my hail with the word “over.” This means I am finished talking and hoping to hear back. (There is no such sign-off, despite the movies, as “Over and out.” “Out” means I am done talking and I don’t want to talk to you anymore. “Over” means I am done talking and I do want to talk to you some more. Which is it, Bunky?

The rest will be pretty straightforward for the private boat captain. USCG Forces will essentially take over the conversational and situational control at that point. They will gather essential information (how many people aboard?) and direct you to take action consistent with the risk of the situation (get everyone in life jackets.) They will also put out an urgent call to all boaters in your vicinity to render assistance if they can, as Good Samaritans. And, if the risk warrants it, they will get under way within minutes of your hail.

Get a radio – and sound safe and smart out there!

If you are interested in being part of USCG Forces, email me at or go direct to the D1SR Human Resources department, who are in charge of new members matters, at and we will help you “get in this thing.”

Captain Andrew Tucci is the Captain of the Port and Sector Commander for US Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound. Captain Tucci is responsible for all active-duty, reservist and auxiliary Coast Guard personnel within the Sector. As a Commodore of the US Coast Guard Auxiliary First District, Southern Region, Vin Pica works closely with Captain Tucci and his staff to promote boating safety in the waters between Connecticut, Long Island and 200 nautical miles offshore. Sector Long Island Sound Command Center can be reached 24 hours a day at 203-468-4401.

Editor’s note: Weekly updates for the waters from Eastport, ME to Shrewsbury, NJ including discrepancies in Aids to Navigation, chart corrections and waterway projects are listed in the USCG Local Notice to Mariners.