A mayday call declares a life-threatening emergency. That is not a call I want to hear on the marine VHF radio, but I have heard it twice.
The first time was years ago off the Washington coast. A 55 foot motor yacht was on fire and the crew was abandoning ship. We could see the plume of black smoke rising thousands of feet into the air from twenty miles away. Everyone from the distressed boat was picked up by a nearby vessel, plus the USCG was soon on the scene.
The second time was today. We were about twelve miles SSE of Santa Rosalia, and just west of the southern end of Isla San Marcos, in the Sea of Cortez. The mayday call came from the 42' sports fishing motor yacht Free Spirit, whose captain said the boat was sinking. They were taking on water and could not find the source, and were deploying their life raft. He clearly gave the coordinates for his position, which I plotted and saw was about in the middle of the Sea of Cortez, about 46 nm from me in a straight line, further by the shortest feasible route. My VHF communication with him was marginal and I was surprised that I had VHF communication at all for that distance, but I did get clearly his position.
Another sailboat besides S/V Ubiquity heard and communicated with the boat in distress, S/V Fathom. Fathom was a little closer to Free Spirit and had clearer VHF communication with Free Spirit, and Fathom and Ubiquity had good VHF communication.
Our attempts to solicit help on the VHF got no response. I told the Fathom's captain that I would try to alert Mexican authorities and would get back to him, while Fathom set a course for the distressed boat.
Using the HF radio on S/V Ubiquity I was not able to contact anyone locally, so I tried getting help on the Maritime Mobile Service Network
, a U.S. service at 14.3 MHz on the ham bands. I immediately got a contact, and although I could barely hear him he was able to get my full information on the mayday and through the USCG alert the Mexican authorities.
At the same time I tried to contact the port captain of the nearest port, Santa Rosalia, using the weak cell phone signal we had. When that failed, I tried to phone the port captain at Puerto Escondido, to the south, and was able to leave the full information about the mayday with his assistant, who said he would immediately contact the port captain.
I received confirmation from both the Maritime Mobile Service Network and from the Puerto Escondido port captain that the Mexican Navy had been notified and was dispatching a boat to the location.
We did not hear from the boat in distress for an hour, the last communication saying they were deploying the life raft. I thought the boat had likely sunk. Then the captain of Free Spirit came on the VHF again saying they had found and stopped the leak, were trying to pump out the boat, could not start the engine, had deployed the life raft but not abandoned the boat, and did not yet want to cancel the mayday.
After that I heard the Mexican Navy boat on the VHF calling for Free Spirit. I was not able to hear any response from Free Spirit.
I know no more about the final outcome. The likelihood of a good resolution was increased by: the efforts on the distressed boat to save the boat and communicate their distress, the recreational boats relaying the mayday information, the Maritime Mobile Service Network, the port captain's office at Puerto Escondido, and the Mexican Navy.
Postscript on the Final Outcome of the Incident:
I received the following communication from the Maritime Mobile Service Network about the final outcome:
"I just spoke with the Coast Guard Sector San Diego. The lieutenant on duty contacted the Mexican Navy, and the final disposition is that the motor vessel Free Spirit was towed to the Port of San Carlos safely and all persons on board are safe at the port. It looks like a great resolution to a very intense situation."
Postscript 2: On-Line Write-up of this Incident
There is now an on-line write-up of this incident