What to Do if Another Boat is in Distress

If you go boating enough, you’re eventually bound to come across another boat in distress. And when that happens, you need to know what to do and not do. 

How to help a boat in distress

Boat emergencies can happen for any number of reasons, like engine problems or simply running out of fuel. Whether it’s engine trouble, bad weather or operator error, boating accidents and other emergencies can happen to you or anybody else. And your ability to help other boaters in distress can mean the difference between life and death. Here’s what to do if you come across a boat in distress.

Approach Carefully

When getting closer to a boat that might be in peril, look and listen for distress signals to make sure there are boaters that actually need your assistance.

Helping another boat in distress

Move your boat alongside the other boat, but not too close. Keep a safe distance and ask the boaters if they need help. If you can’t find anyone in or near the boat but it clearly looks like the boat is in danger, don’t attempt to board the other vessel. Instead, call it in immediately and wait for help to arrive. 

Calling for Emergency Assistance

Use a marine VHF (very high frequency) radio and/or your cellphone to call for emergency help. If you spot people in or near the other boat, ask whether anyone is hurt and inform the authorities if medical attention is needed.

How to help a boat in distress VHF radio

Call in the emergency on Channel 16 of a VHF radio, but only use the “MAYDAY” call signal if it’s a life-threatening emergency. When issuing a MAYDAY call, do the following:

Say "MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY", then say the name of your boat and state your position. Say “MAYDAY” and your boat’s name once again, then report your location, the emergency, what kind of assistance is needed, the number of people involved and if any are injured. Describe the vessel in distress and wait for a response, and repeat the message if there isn’t any. 

Boat in distress what to do

Speak slowly and clearly, and repeat the information if necessary. Also, try using Coast Guard Channel 22A if Channel 16 isn’t providing a response. Keep in mind that Channel 16 is for emergencies only, so make sure there actually is one before calling it in, as penalties exist for improper use of the channel.

Use Your Phone

While a cellphone is no substitute for a VHF radio, you should of course still have one on you for emergencies. Use your cell phone to dial 911 or other law enforcement rescues in your area as an extra measure, provided your phone has a signal. 

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Carry Spare PFDs

When helping another boat in distress from emergencies like running aground, sinking or fires, help get as many people off the other boat as possible. Personal flotation devices are crucial in these situations. While all boats are required to have personal flotation devices onboard, you may come across a distressed vessel that doesn’t have enough or any PFDs at all.

Boat in distress flotation device

Always have spare flotation devices onboard that you can toss over to others in case they don’t already have them. That way others can swim to your boat safely, provided you can accommodate more people on board.

Don’t Risk Your Own Safety

While the safety and survival of those on a distressed boat is vital, never prioritize the safety of others over that of the people on your own boat. In other words, don’t attempt to provide assistance if doing so will put even more people at risk. Only load passengers from the other boat onto your own if your boat is big enough to handle the extra load.

Boat in distress extra passengers

Be extra careful when loading passengers during a storm, and maintain a safe distance from the distressed vessel while doing so. And if you’ve loaded extra passengers on your boat and are taking them to shore and/or towing their boat, inform the authorities. 

If you come across a capsized boat, especially a sailboat, don’t attempt to help unless you know for sure there are people in need of assistance. Should your help be needed, approach the capsized boat from downwind, making sure your boat’s propeller doesn’t clash with the other boat. Or in the case of a capsized sailboat, that its submerged sails and rigging don’t compromise the safety of your own vessel. 

Sail boat in distress

Use Visual Distress Signals

Having visual distress signals on boats that are 16ft in length or longer is required by law, and of course they’re an effective means of flagging down help. Distress signals to look out for include orange flags and orange smoke flares during the day, and emergency signal lights and red flares at night. If you see another boat firing off flares, waving orange flags or displaying S.O.S. emergency lights, don’t ignore them.

Boat visual distress signal flare

That goes for horns and whistles too if you hear them. Respond immediately, as you’re required by law to help if you’re able to, but again, don’t risk your own safety to help others. Approach the distressed boat with caution and radio it in. 

Towing a Distressed Boat

Never tow another boat until you’re sure the hardware you attach towlines to on both boats are firmly installed, sturdy and strong. Make sure the tow lines are stable as well, and that they’re of an appropriate length to tow another boat, regardless of the conditions. 

Boat in distress towing

When towing another boat, maintain a low speed, and make sure the emergency tow line is secured at a distance where both boats can stay in synch with each other through waves. Also, never attempt to tow a boat larger than your own.  

Don’t Panic

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when helping a distressed boat is not to panic. This applies especially to man overboard situations, where people in water could already be panicking and could put you in danger. 

Boat in distress man overboard

In other words, don’t immediately jump in to try to save somebody, as their panicked thrashing could end up bringing you down with them. Instead, calmly grab a flotation device such as a life ring. Then, get as close as possible to the person in the water while still in your boat and toss them the flotation device so you can pull them in and help them board your boat. 

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Exchange Contact Information

Finally, when bringing others from a distressed boat safely onto your own boat, make sure to exchange contact information. You’ll need to report the incident to the authorities anyway, so having the contact information of anyone you pulled into your boat is important for following up.


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