A sure sign of spring in northern latitudes, Mayday also happens to be the universal term to signal a life-threatening emergency. Read on for the story behind Mayday and other boating distress calls.
Like learning about boating terminology? Brush up with our Parts of the Boat cheat-sheet.
Mayday first appeared in the English language in 1923 and was most often used by boats and aircrafts. Credited with coining the term, Frederick Stanley Mackford, a Senior Radio Officer at Croydon Airport in London, was tasked with creating an easily understood distress signal.
At the time, the Croydon Airport most often communicated with the French Airport, Le Bourget. Stanley landed on Mayday, the phonetic equivalent to m’aider “help me” or venez m’aider “come help me” in French. The United States adopted Mayday as the official radiotelegraph distress signal in 1927. Always hailed three times, Mayday is acknowledged globally.
But what about SOS? Contrary to popular belief, SOS is not an acronym but rather a Morse code distress signal (... --- …). Initially, SOS was primarily used in telegraphic communications, as opposed to radio communication, and could be easily understood. Over the radio, however, it became difficult to distinguish the S in SOS. Captains and pilots were forced to repeat themselves in order to clarify the signal. Mayday, a short and clear call, was the solution to the problem.
Other common distress signals originated from the French language as well. PAN PAN, in French: panne meaning “breakdown," and securite, in French: sécurité meaning “safety.” PAN PAN refers to an urgent situation that, for the time being, does not pose an immediate threat to one’s life. Securite indicates a preface to a navigational safety concern such as an impending storm, debris in the water, or broken navigation lights.
In addition to the above, you may want to familiarize yourself with the agreed upon visual cues for when a boat is in distress and in need of help.
Orange Distress Flag: Make sure your boat is equipped with an orange distress flag. These can be found in most boating stores and feature a black square and circle (ball) side by side on an orange background. If possible, attach it to a paddle or something that can be waved around.
Electric Distress Lights: At night it's best to use an electric distress light or other illumination. The benefit of electric distress lights is they have a lower fire risk than flares and can be stored longer.
Flares or orange smoke: Flares can be shot into the air off the side of your boat or hand held. Orange smoke can be held and waved. Both make for a highly visible signal especially at night. You'll want to pay attention to the expiration dates however as the US Coast Guard recommends replacing your flares every 42 months of age.
You can see a full list of visual distress equipment over on BoatUS's site. BoatUS is a partner of Dockwa.
We wish you fair winds and following seas, but if there does ever come a time when you need to hail Mayday, know in advance what should follow the initial hail. Click the image to the left to download a PDF of step-by-step instructions for putting out a distress call.
This post was originally published in 2019 and updated in 2021 with additional information.