Happy May Day! May 1st is a traditional day of celebration of the coming of spring with May poles and dancing and general carrying on. In Europe it is also a day of solidarity with labor, similar o the US celebration of Labor Day toward the end of Summer.
Of course, Mayday, as a single word, typically repeated three times, is also an international call for help on the sea and in the air. Mayday is a fairly recent term, dating only to the use of radio for communication with ships and airplanes. In 1923, Frederick Stanley Mockford, a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London, Mockford was asked to think of a word that would indicate distress in an emergency. Many of the flights from London in those days were to Paris, so he borrowed from the French phrase, venez m’aider, meaning “come help me.” Shortened to two rhyming syllables, Mayday was easily understood by pilots and ground crew. Mayday was adopted as an international code word in 1927.
Mayday is only to be used in the most dire emergencies. For dangerous situations which may risk the safety of the crew and vessel but are not immediate or grave, the call Pan-pan should be used.
In recent years, the US Coast Guard has been plagued by hoax distress calls. (See here and here for examples.) This year, the Coast Guard in Maryland is holding a month long “Operation Mayday” from April 15 – May 15, to inform the boating public that making a false distress call is a felony punishable by law. From the Coast Guard press release:
Last year, Coast Guard Sector Baltimore received six false distress calls between May 1 and June 1, and all were believed to be from the same individual. As a result of the calls, four searches involving multiple air and boat crews were conducted by the Coast Guard and local authorities. The Coast Guard’s cost for the searches is estimated to be approximately $70,000.
In addition to cost, there is significant operational impact caused by making false distress calls.
“Making false distress calls limits the Coast Guard and our rescue partners’ capabilities to assist those boaters that are in actual emergency situations,” said Capt. Kevin Kiefer, commander of Sector Baltimore. “Hoax radio calls also place first responders in unnecessary danger as they work to assist the boating public.”
The maximum penalty for making a false distress call is six years in prison, a $5,000 civil fine, a $250,000 criminal fine and reimbursement to the Coast Guard.
Coast Guard Investigative Service Baltimore has established a 24-hour telephone line to report anyone who is suspected of making false distress calls. Anyone with information is asked to call 410-576-2696.