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What Must You Do if Another Boat Is in Distress

Written by J. Harvey / Fact checked by S. Numbers

what must you do if another boat is in distress

You’re sailing along in the middle of the sea, and, suddenly, you receive a signal from another vessel. Bad news, it’s an SOS or, if visible, a flag signifying a call for help.

Maritime laws require boats to respond to other vessels having an emergency. Hence, what must you do if another boat is in distress?

Firstly, request emergency assistance from nearby authorities. If you can safely get close to the vessel, do it, then ask what their situation is and actively lend them support. Get their contact information, share yours, and report the accident to the coast guard.

Are Boat Operators Really Required to Render Aid?


According to Chapter 5 of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), a “master of a ship” is required to help any distressed watercraft they come across.

Does this responsibility extend to private boat operators? Yes, it does because it’s also explicitly stated in the said document that both recreational and commercial ships and boats are obligated to respond to maritime mayday messages.

There are exceptions, though. One main thing to consider is if the boat is actually near enough for you to properly impart assistance.

  • Ships tend to receive distress signals even though they’re thousands of miles away. If you’re too far, it may be best to just call for help that will be able to properly and quickly respond to the emergency.
  • Another is if you’re well aware that you may place the safety of your passengers on board if you attempt to help.

When Should You Help?

It’s a given that you should try to help another boat in distress that’s within your proximity. But, when is a boat operator required to assist exactly?

To answer that, we need to define what a “boat in distress” really is. Usually, as defined by the Maritime SAR Convention, distress means everyone aboard is in a life-threatening situation and requires timely aid.

Even so, you have to make sure that all your passengers, if there are any, are safe first and there’s no present risk to their safety. Once you have eliminated and can guarantee that you can prevent any possible danger to them, only then should you help other vessels.

Things to Keep in Mind When Responding to a Distressed Vessel


Now that you’re aware of your safety responsibility as an operator, it’s time to tackle the main question. Again, this is assuming you and your passengers are all out of harm’s way.

1. Always beware of the risk of helping first

If, for example, a boat smashed and got caught in some rocks, you may have to think twice about getting your vessel near them. The same goes for taking the plunge and boarding a vessel that’s already showing signs of sinking.

  • It’s always best to rely on more able hands like the local coast guard before you take action, so calling for their help should always be one of the first steps you take.

If you know that there’s no immediate threat to your safety, then don’t hesitate to answer the call. Get your vessel as close as possible to the one in need of help without, of course, colliding with it.

2. Render immediate help in any way you properly can

Find a way to safely provide assistance, especially if the coast guard already answering the SOS asks you for it.

  • It’s safe to assume that you already have lifeboats and life vests in your boat. Hand them out to the people on board, all the more so for those already in the water.
  • If the craft is on fire, assess whether it’s small enough to be taken out with an extinguisher or two. You can try to take it out, but if it’s not showing signs of improvement, then it’s best to opt for complete evacuation.

3. Once the danger has been removed, ensure everyone’s safety and inform authorities

We want to de-escalate the accident and prevent the threat from coming back as much as possible. Regardless of whether you were able to save the boat or had to get everyone on your vessel, it’s sound practice to keep your communication lines open so be sure to get their contact information.

Assuming you could save the people in danger on your own, you will still need to report the accident to the proper authorities.


1. As a boat operator assisting another vessel, what is my main responsibility?

The primary responsibility of a vessel operator assisting a boat in distress is still to keep himself or herself and the persons aboard his or her boat safe. Attempting to endanger yourself would be the height of futility and only adds to the magnitude of the danger that you and the other vessel are in.

More importantly, attempting a risky procedure may only put your passengers at risk. That could be grounds for legal action already, which is also highlighted in SOLAS.

2. Besides radioing for aid, what are the other ways that boats send signals for help?


As I’ve said above, a vessel may use flags to do this. In most cases, either the Charlie or November flags will be flown by the ship’s captain.

Don’t limit yourself to that, though, as there are other potent ways to attract attention. Horns and even bells and gongs may be used. Even waving your arms can serve this purpose.

To get an idea of what the possible options are so you can be made aware of them, I highly suggest you watch this brief video:


Ultimately, the keys in this situation are to alert the coast guard and render assistance in any way you possibly and safely can. On the whole, it’s great that you’re interested in what must you do if another boat is in distress.

It shows that you care a lot for other sailors and not just because you’re required to do it. When all is said and done, rendering help to distressed vessels still hinges on whether you’ll willingly do it, after all.

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