If you ever hear Mayday on the radio when sailing, that is serious business.

In fact, Mayday is the most serious, since it should only ever be used in cases where there is an actual imminent threat to the life safety of those aboard the calling vessel. Boat on fire, boat sinking rapidly, severed artery, that sort of thing. If you hear a call for Mayday, stop everything to determine if you are in a position to provide aid. If you are, do so without hesitation. These people need help fast!

In other cases where things go wrong, you might just radio the marina or your charter company for help or guidance. The charter boat on our last trip to Croatia had a broken part that negatively impacted the toilets and caused them to leak and back-flow. Completely disgusting but not a coast-guard emergency. The charter company sent out a technician with parts while we explored the island of Vis on scooters. First world problems, no doubt.

But what about things in the middle of these scenarios? Where no one is in serious harm – yet – but a high degree of attention is warranted. When what you are facing is urgent and could unravel without proper care. What if you aren’t on a standard help-on-the-ready charter? Fouled propeller, engine failure, out of fuel, needing a tow, or other emergencies that might require help or that nearby boats should be aware of.

In these cases, PAN-PAN is your go-to international standard state of urgency signal!

Essentially, using PAN-PAN says “we’ve got a critical situation that – for now at least – doesn’t pose an immediate danger to anyone’s life or to the boat, but stay tuned.”

How is it used? Using the VHF on an open or emergency frequency the caller repeats it three times: “PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN,” then states the intended recipient three times. You might use “all stations, all stations, all stations,” or “coast guard, coast guard, coast guard,” for example. Then the caller identifies their boat, position, nature of the problem, and the type of assistance or advice they require.

I am suggesting that as a sailor, especially someone who plans to go on extended voyages outside the comfort zone of charter management, understanding all distress protocols and when to use them is important and it is no joke. If you need help, you need to quickly assess what kind of help is required and act accordingly. Understanding that PAN-PAN is a way to communicate an urgent – though not life-threatening situation – is something you should know.

I am also suggesting that PAN-PAN is such a great concept that it deserves application extending beyond the water. It is a perfect set of words to signal to those around you, those who might be able to help you, that you might need an assist.

About 13 years ago my then-puppy Clementine, a white runt bulldog, was at my then-boyfriend’s house. He had a brand-new kitten and at this particular moment that kitten was on the floor between Clementine and myself. Poor Clem kept trying to come over but the kitten would frighten her back to her original position over and over again. Clementine eventually just sat down and gave a bit of a squeak. I think she was saying “PAN-PAN”.

Car out of gas? Impossible work deadline? Cocktail need a refresh? PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN!

Are these even urgent situations? Not sure. But I do know that saying the words PAN-PAN is fun, and you do not want to amuse yourself with this over the VHF radio because using them in an actual boating scenario means you actually have a situation. Remember that.

But at home with friends and family, far away from the water?

Entirely reasonable.

Lea Maxwell

Lea Maxwell is the sailor and scribe behind Escape Under Sail, a web|blog project that connects new and future charter sailors with the resources, information, and motivation they need to competently and confidently sail beautiful destinations around the world.

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