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Man Overboard – MOB

Man Overboard (MOB) – as you will see there is not a “hard and fast rule” but more of a judgement call at the time of the incident.

There is much confusion, among recreational mariners, regarding the correct use of radio during Man Overboard (MOB) emergencies at sea. Some organisations and groups, representing various sectors of the industry, favour MAYDAY over PAN PAN and are actively promoting their own views among their members.

Conflicting advice and different interpretations of official guidelines have further fuelled the confusion. Such confusion may indeed lead to undesirable outcomes during MOB emergencies, possibly exposing the well-meaning advisors to unwelcome liabilities.
The following is an attempt to provide a more informed basis for the crucial decisions that mariners must take when someone is lost overboard.

Little knowledge is dangerous!

Let us first test our understanding of the rules by answering a simple question:
Which of the following is the most important?
If you selected MAYDAY, you have failed the test!
MAYDAY signal is used during distress situations indicating that:
“A mobile unit or person is threatened by grave and imminent danger and requires immediate assistance”.
In other words, it is too late to do anything to avoid the danger. SECURITE signal, on the other hand, is used to announce safety messages that help mariners avoid danger in the first place!
To say MAYDAY is more important than SECURITE is to claim that cure is better than prevention. The same observation applies to PAN PAN.
All three signals are important and must be given equal attention at all times. Their difference is in their priority for transmission. That is to say if a SECURITE, a PAN PAN and a MAYDAY are to be broadcast at the same time, MAYDAY goes first. That is all. No more, no less.

Clarity saves, confusion kills.

The statement above is self-evident and needs no further explanation. To ensure clarity, MAYDAY calls have a strict prescribed format that must be followed to the letter. The response to a MAYDAY call is also strictly prescribed and is legally binding.
The correct format for MAYDAY transmission is as follows:
This is
Titanium, Titanium, Titanium
Position 42˚ 29’ South, 117˚ 19’ East
16 POB

This format ensures that information critical to successful search and rescue, is broadcast in the correct order of who, where, what (after attracting everyone’s attention).
During distress situations, the ability to transmit radio signals is lost as soon as the battery is submerged. The prescribed order for transmitting information, ensures that more important
information (where) is broadcast before (what) just in case the battery submerges in the middle of a call for help.
The obligation to accept distress calls is absolute and they must be given priority over all other communications. This is the law! No If(s), But(s) or Maybe(s)!
In practice, a MAYDAY call will effectively lock out all other transmissions until such time as the search and rescue effort is well underway, and even then, only important calls are allowed.
More importantly, all stations must stay tuned on the emergency channel and record the details of distress radio traffic in their radio log even if they are not in a position to render assistance.
And there is more! The stations that are able to help, must help. This is also the law. In most cases, nearby vessels will rush to the position broadcast during the distress call to render assistance.

First come first served.

Imagine a beautiful busy late afternoon on Sydney Harbour or the Derwent River with hundreds of vessels on the water. Vessel A with two persons on-board (2 POB) crossing a traffic lane loses its steering and is drifting onto rocks. It decides to send a MAYDAY call to warn a large vessel using the lane (but still some distance away) and at the same time ask for immediate assistance.
A few minutes after vessel A transmits its MAYDAY, two other vessels B and C collide with B sinking fast and C on fire. The skipper of vessel B with 6 POB decides to send a MAYDAY. Skipper of vessel C with 8 POB does the same. The three vessels have given different positions obtained from their respective GPS systems. With three MAYDAY calls on the same frequency at the same time, we now have a very confusing situation and confusion kills.
Technically, the first vessel to declare emergency (A) has the control of the distress frequency.
Instead of calling MAYDAY, vessels B and C may indeed achieve better results by using flares or other means of declaring emergency such as Digital Selective Calling (DSC) if available.
The chances of more than one MAYDAY situation developing at any given time is actually higher that we may think. Just remember the Sydney-Hobart Race of 1998.

By using MAYDAY, vessel A has locked-out the distress frequency yet it carries 2 POB compared to 14 POB on the other vessels. Nevertheless, Vessel A has the same rights to radio frequencies as the other two and cannot be blamed for exercising its rights. Besides, vessel A could not have predicted the second incident.
The question is, could vessel A have achieved the same outcome by using PAN PAN instead? If not then it made the right call. Otherwise, it would have been more prudent to use PAN PAN and leave the higher priority available to others who may have needed it more. Remember you could be a person on-board B or C.

The boy who cried wolf.

The definition of distress, “a mobile unit or person is threatened by grave and imminent danger and requires immediate assistance”, implies that all other efforts to remedy the situation have failed and the last resort, a MAYDAY call, must be used. This is a judgement call. Repeated overuse of MAYDAY, for more manageable situations, may indeed cause it to lose efficacy and reduce its effectiveness.

Come here or go away?

Let us consider the following scenarios:
1- A person falls overboard a yacht. Others on the boat witness the fall and can see the person in the water. The skipper is manoeuvring the boat to go to the rescue and retrieve the person.
The last thing the skipper needs is a dozen well-meaning good Samaritans in fast boats with powerful engines applying full power, throwing big wakes behind them, and racing at break-neck speed to the position broadcast in the MAYDAY call. They could run over the person in the water!
In fact if this happens during a yacht race, all of the yachts following (more or less on the same track) should immediately disperse to avoid running over the person in the water.
Besides, is the broadcast position that of the person in the water or the vessel itself? Remember, confusion kills!
2- What if we lose sight of the person in the water and want all vessels in the vicinity to stop their engines or slow down and keep a good lookout to find that person or, more importantly, avoid running over that person? Well, same as in previous example, a MAYDAY call may actually make things worse by creating confusion. In this scenario, the MAYDAY must also be modified to provide approximate position of the person in the water. This may not be clear to those who copy the distress call. A MAYDAY call is simply not flexible enough for this purpose!
3- What if someone falls overboard without being noticed and several hours pass before someone realises that the person is missing? Use of MAYDAY would be even more confusing. What position should be reported in the distress call? Will those who copy the call actually realise the approximate nature of the position or simply hear what they expect to hear (in a MAYDAY call) not what is being said? Would they do what is asked of them or simply head to the reported position at maximum speed? More importantly, would PAN PAN achieve the desired outcome?

Leaving one’s options open

It is very easy to upgrade a PAN PAN to a MAYDAY. It is almost impossible to do the reverse without causing confusion and confusion kills.

There is no substitute for intelligence and sound judgement.

A Man Overboard (MOB) situation is one of the most traumatic events on-board any vessel.
Nevertheless, it is not always a MAYDAY situation. It is not always a PAN PAN situation either.
Sometimes, it is not even an emergency! There is no clear-cut choice between MAYDAY, PAN PAN or even SECURITE for Man Overboard.

If there was a clear-cut choice, the regulators would have prescribed it.

Although the regulations lean towards the PAN PAN call from a ship as the preferred choice for MOB situations, there is nothing to stop skippers declaring distress if they judge it to be more appropriate.
However, as we have discussed above, over-simplification of a “one size fits all” response, may actually have the opposite outcome to what was intended and those who prescribe it may be blamed for any adverse results.


The choice of MAYDAY or PAN PAN for Man Overboard (MOB) situations is a judgment call made by the skipper at the time of the incident. In making the decision the following points are worthy of consideration.
• MAYDAY (Distress priority), PAN PAN (Urgency priority) and SECURITE (Safety priority) have the same importance and must be given the same attention! They only differ in their priority for broadcast (if they happen at the same time).
• Distress communications shall have absolute priority over all other transmissions.
• Urgency communications shall have priority over all other communications, except distress.
• Safety communications shall have priority over all other communications, except distress and urgency.
• It is always prudent to use the lowest priority that achieves the desired results leaving the higher priorities available for someone else who may be in more danger (you may be that someone else).
• It is easier to upgrade a PAN PAN than to downgrade a MAYDAY!
• If you want someone to stay clear of a person in the water, MAYDAY may not be the best call!
• Do not rely on hearsay and well-meaning advice. Use your own judgement.
• “One size fits all” solutions are not suitable in life and death situations.
• Nothing stops you using a MAYDAY if you think it is a right thing to do. Ask yourself if PAN PAN can achieve the same or better results (less confusion).
• In many MOB cases, a vessel can start with a PAN PAN and later upgrade it to MAYDAY if necessary.

Epilogue and Disclaimer

No doubt some would disagree with what is presented here and the arguments for and against the choice of priority signal will continue. The purpose of this brief is to provide some food for thought for skippers who must make the final call.
This document does not seek to prescribe any set radio procedures for MOB. Relevant Australian and International regulations in the matter have the final say.

Discussion Paper presented by Sam Josof – AMC OMC Manger: Man Overboard

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VHF Marine Radio Digital Selective Calling | What is it?

What is Digital Selective Calling (DSC)?

DSC is a semi-automated means of establishing initial contact between stations. Once contact has been made, communications on a nominated HF frequency or VHF voice channel should be used to pass messages.

Continue reading VHF Marine Radio Digital Selective Calling | What is it?

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YES – You Do Need A Marine Radio Operators Certificate – MROCP

Over the years many questions have arisen regarding the need or value of having the marine radio operators certificate. Hopefully the following information will put to bed the very justifiable reasons to apply for the certificate. At the end of the day, it’s all about SOLAS – Safety of Life at Sea for the skipper, the crew and the many thousands of volunteer marine rescue personnel who place their lives at risk to save life at sea.

Why Do I Need A Certificate Of Proficiency?

A marine radio is a useless piece of equipment unless you know how to use it properly. By obtaining a Certificate of Proficiency you will obtain the knowledge that can help you save lives.

A Certificate of Proficiency gives you the skills that are essential for the confident and responsible use of a marine radio. You learn what to do when you need to respond to an emergency call and how to make an emergency call that can be understood and responded to appropriately if you ever become endangered at sea.

Marine radio communications can also provide a variety of services to small vessels, including weather and navigational information as well as other services important to those at sea. The more you and your crew on board know about marine radios the more you will all benefit from its use.

What do the MROVCP & MROCP abbreviations mean?

The Marine Radio Operators VHF Certificate of Proficiency, commonly known as the MROVCP is the certificate required to legally operate a Marine VHF Radio while on inland waterways or at sea within Australia.

The Marine Radio Operators Certificate of Proficiency, commonly known as the MROCP is the certificate required to legally operate a Marine VHF MF/HF Radio while on inland waterways or at sea.

If your marine radio is Digital Selective Calling (DSC) capable, then you will need to obtain the certificate to apply for a DSC Maritime Mobile Service Identification (MMSI) number.

Obtaining Your Operators Certificate?

The MROVCP and MROCP Certificates are awarded to candidates once they have passed an examination. Preparing for the examination can be done two ways. You can choose to prepare through independent study or by attending a course offered by a training provider.

Contact your local volunteer Marine Rescue group in your area, as many offer the service to members and the general public.


Should you choose to study independently for your MROVCP or MROCP examination you will need to obtain a current edition of the Marine Radio Operators Handbook as a study tool (see below). The exam questions are based on the material contained in the handbook. Once you have studied the handbook and feel that you are ready to be examined, you must contact an Invigilator in your area and arrange a suitable time, date and place to sit the examination. A list of Invigilators is accessible via the website


Should you choose to attend a course to help you prepare for your MROVCP or MROCP examination, you will need to make enquiries about training courses available in your area. Training courses vary in scope and cost so do your homework before committing to any particular course. For example will there be an OMC registered Invigilator conducting the examination at the completion of the course? Are the costs of the handbook and examination marking included in the course fee?


The Marine Radio Operators Handbook will assist candidates for all operators certificates to study for their examinations. The handbook includes recommended syllabi for each of the certificates and icons throughout the book indicate relevant areas of study for each qualification.

All examinations are supervised by OMC registered invigilators.


Who is the Office of Maritime Communications?

The Office of Maritime Communications is the only body in Australia that can award marine radio qualifications. The office is part of the Australian Maritime College, Australia’s national centre for maritime training, education and research.

Do I need a license for the 27Mhz or VHF radio?

Individual licences are not required for 27 MHz or VHF marine radio transceivers but the operator of a VHF Marine Radio does require a Certificate of Proficiency (MROVCP). Because 27 MHz and VHF marine radios are now class licensed, official call signs are no-longer issued. However, operators are still required to identify their vessels at the beginning of each series of transmissions.

Does the MF/HF marine radio require a license?

Yes, the apparatus needs to be licensed and the operator requires a Certificate of Proficiency. When the apparatus is licensed a call sign will be issues by the ACMA (Australian Communications and Media Authority).

How often do I have to update my Marine Radio Operator’s Certificate?

Marine Radio Operator’s Certificates are issued for life and do not need renewing

Who is an Invigilator?

An Invigilator is a person whom is certified to supervise examinations. A list of Invigilators is accessible via the website

If a candidate fails can they re-sit the exam?

Yes, a candidate may re-sit the examination as many times as it takes to gain the Certificate of Proficiency. Each time the candidate must pay the current processing fee and submit a photo.

However, after the second or third attempt the candidate or Invigilator should query the circumstances and reassess the situation. Would the VHF certificate be more appropriate or should a special examination be considered?

Can the holder of an Amateur or Aviation Radio License receive exemptions for the Marine Radio Certification?

No, amateur and aviation radio certificates are not valid for marine radio operations. These operators must successfully gain their Marine Radio Certification.

Does a candidate have to attend a training course?

Not for the MROVCP or MROCP, however there is nothing better than to attend a face-to-face classroom presentation by an experienced marine rescue trainer. They will offer a vast knowledge base of real life experiences and applications for the use of your marine radio. Another advantage in attending is to have the opportunity to broadcast a transmission. (low power, classroom environment). The more practise you have, the confident you will become in using the marine radio.

For all certificates, candidates should obtain a copy of the Marine Radio Operators Handbook (MROH) for either the MROVCP or MROCP study stream. The handbook is a very useful study guide for all examinations and should be carried on board the vessel for future reference by you or your crew.

Is my overseas marine radio qualification valid in Australia?

Australia recognises other countries marine qualifications that are issued according to International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recommendations. Submit a copy of your qualification to ACMA, if you have any doubts.

What is the type of examination do I need to complete?

The examination is a closed book, and no communications other than with the invigilator or no aides are allowed;

The examination duration is 30 Minutes for the MROVCP, 25 question multi choice answers;

The examination duration is 60 Minutes for the MROCP, 50 question multi choice answers;

There is only one correct answer of the four suggested answers offered, so take your time to read all the questions first;

Then consider the four options for the ‘best fit’;

Attempt all the questions as any question not answered will be marked as incorrect;

To pass, you must obtain 70%, or higher.

What if I don’t have a certificate and I need to use the marine radio in an Emergency?

The Radiocommunications Act 1992, Part 3.1, section 49  allows any person in possession of a marine radio, if they have a reasonable belief, that the operation was necessary for the purpose of:

  1. Securing the safety of a vessel that was in danger; or
  2. Dealing with an emergency involving a serious threat to the environment; or
  3. Dealing with an emergency involving risk of death of, or injury to, persons; or
  4. Dealing with an emergency involving risk of substantial loss of, or substantial damage to, property

partial content courtesy of AMC-OMC