Boot Key Harbor, Matathon, Florida
The other night in after dinner talk, we heard a story from one of our guests. She had another woman on board who had never sailed before. After two or three days at sea, they had endured several storms. In the parlance of boosters, they "got beat up." To make things worse, the boat's deck was leaking water into the cabin. Not enough to risk sinking, just enough to make it wet and uncomfortable. The captain told us, then my guest went to the VHF radio, and without my knowledge or permission, she called "Mayday Mayday," on the radio.
Well, the four of us listening to this story sharply sucked in our breath in shock. That is about the most heinous Cardinal sin that we can imagine. In this case, the outcome was benign. The Coast Guard did not panic. They determined, by questioning this woman, that there was no emergency so they took no action.
It could have turned out the other way. There is the famous, or infamous case of the Westail 32 Satori. The book and the movie both named The Perfect Storm popularized the incident, but they did not accurately convey what happened. You can read the whole, accurate, story here. In essence, there were two inexperienced women on board Satori. They too called the Coast Guard without permission of the captain. They were removed by USCG helicopter and returned to land. A few hours later, the same copter crashed attempting another rescue and one of the crewmen died. The book combined the stories of these two rescues into one thus confusing the facts.
There are three lessons to be learned here. First, the use of the phrases MAYDAY MAYDAY or PAN PAN on the radio are limited to actual emergencies. I think responsible boaters all know that. Second, the captain and only the captain decides what is and what isn't an emergency. Third, use of a radio to communicate without permission of the captain is strictly forbidden. (In today's world of cell phones and Internet, cruise ships can hardly enforce this.)
That last one is probably not known to most passengers. Therefore, before any significant passage (especially offshore), passengers should be briefed before departure. First, a passenger must not touch any of the radios. Only the captain and authorized crew can do that. Second, is the opposite case. In case the captain and crew become disabled, how should the passenger use the radios to summon help? They need to trained how to do that. On Tarwathie we have a placard on the wall next to the radio that makes our training easier.